Cohen: Payette almost left Rideau Hall two years ago. Too bad she didn't

Had she asked herself some hard questions, it would have been clear that she was temperamentally miscast as Canada’s de facto head of state and commander-in-chief.

REVIERS, FRANCE - JUNE 05: Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, speaks at a commemorative ceremony to honor Canadian veterans and fallen soldiers of the World War II Battle of Normandy at the Commonwealth War Graves Commissions Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy on June 05, 2019 near Reviers, France. About 38 Canadian veterans took part in the ceremony at the cemetery that contains the graves of approximately 2,000 Canadian soldiers killed during D-Day and the subsequent fighting and is one of several scattered across Normandy. Veterans, families, visitors and military personnel are gathering in Normandy to commemorate the June 6, 75th anniversary of the Allied D-Day invasion, which heralded the Allied advance towards Germany and victory about 11 months later. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

For Julie Payette, the mariner of the heavens who struggled on Earth, it didn’t have to end this way. Were the government more prudent than impulsive, were she as wise as she is smart, Mme Payette would never have become Governor General of Canada.

And today, she would be not former governor general of Canada – having resigned under pressure, in disgrace. Her public life is over and her private life is in pieces. She looks foolish, and so does Justin Trudeau.

It didn’t have to be this way. Had the government been more diligent (it missed her legal troubles in the United States) and had the media asked more questions (including me, who praised her appointment), this all might have been avoided. Had she listened to advice and asked herself some hard questions, it would have been clear that she was temperamentally miscast as Canada’s de facto head of state and commander-in-chief.

But, then again, who could resist the talented Mme Payette? Wasn’t she from outer space?

If you were Trudeau, looking to make a splash, Payette was dazzling. She was confident, clever and bicultural, an icon and celebrity.

She was an astronaut and engineer, succeeding as a woman in tough fields. She had lived in many places, spoke six languages and ran the Montreal Science Centre. She could play the piano and speak with wit and depth. I saw all this.

Having said that, it isn’t as if Payette needed to break the mould of governor general. Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul, modernized the office with imagination and panache. Clarkson’s successor, Michaëlle Jean, was engaged and visible. David Johnston was more Roland Michener than his immediate predecessors, but he was genteel and dutiful.

So Payette did not inherit a position that needed reimagining. From this gifted Quebecoise, polymath and cosmopolitan, we just hoped for a little zest, a dash of inspiration, perhaps a spirited defence of science amid the climate deniers and creationists. Most of all, though, we expected her to do her job.

And here’s the problem: she didn’t. Not really. How she treated her office was more reason for her to go than how she treated her staff.

This isn’t to dismiss or minimize the reportedly “scathing” assessment of her behaviour at Rideau Hall. In today’s cancel culture, she was done. Things have changed. On his first day in office, by way of example, Joe Biden warned his staff that he would “fire, on the spot” anyone he found mistreating a colleague.

But the report on her micro-aggressions and “bullying” which we’re unlikely to see in full – this is Canada, where secrets thrive – is a pretext, a convenient cover, for a swelling discontent that had overwhelmed Payette at Rideau Hall right from the beginning.

This was not hidden. There were news reports in the summer of 2018 that Payette was negotiating the terms of her departure. She had defenders, eminent Canadians, who counselled her. They hoped she would learn to do the job she was offered – and accepted – with little reflection. In early 2019, one assured me Payette had “turned the corner.”

In response to those reports, she insisted she was “fully committed to serving Canada and Canadians.” What that meant no one really knew, but the whispers continued. She was not living at Rideau Hall. She tried to ditch her security detail. She disliked official duties such as signing bills, while asking, inappropriately, to join the G-7 leaders at the table in Charlevoix.

Payette could have made herself useful. She’s a scientist and Canada is riven with contagion. Has she said or done anything meaningful about the COVID-19 vaccine? Has she offered words or acts of encouragement? The constraints of pandemic notwithstanding, she’s been invisible.

Had she left the job two years ago, we would have understood. Some things don’t work out in life. The appointment isn’t a 19th-century marriage; better to leave than remain restless in a demanding role.

But she didn’t resign two-and-a-half years ago, and the government didn’t make her. Had she or Trudeau acted then, we would not have what we do today: a royal embarrassment, an institutional failure, and a personal tragedy.

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, a professor at Carleton University and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy the 48 Hours That Made History.

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