Kurl: Next time, choose a governor general who likes people, Mr. Trudeau

Who wouldn’t be pleased at visiting enthusiastic schoolchildren, standing as patron to worthy volunteer organizations and handing out Orders of Canada to people on the happiest days of their lives?

JUSTIN TANG/The Canadian Press Roberta Bondar, of Sault Ste. Marie, a scientist and environmental advocate who was Canada's first female astronaut in space, is invested as Companion of the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday. ORG XMIT: POS1905081214483568

How it started: Canadians approved of Julie Payette’s nomination to be governor general by a margin of four-to-one over those who didn’t.

How it’s going: well, she’s gone.

Back in 2017, for a first-term Trudeau government still gaga about communicating via symbols rather than words, Julie Payette was pure stardom. Literally. An astronaut, a military pilot, a brilliant scientist, a single parent, a woman. In contrast to predecessors such as the Viscount Willingdon or the Earl of Bessborough, she seemed a thoroughly modern choice as the Queen’s representative in Canada.

By now, we are all familiar with the extent to which she was a thoroughly terrible choice. And while academic Twitter is breathless with issues of precedence and what happens next, and the rest-of-us Twitter engages in speculation over who will replace her, perhaps it would be prudent to take a step back and put on our HR hats, reviewing the job description before making the next hire.

The position itself is a peculiar one. Parliamentary duties include summoning, proroguing and dissolving Parliament, reading the Speech from the Throne, and providing Royal Assent, by which acts of Parliament become law.
Then there is the governor general’s function as Commander-in-Chief of Canada, rallying troops and visiting military bases on behalf of Her Majesty.

It is the last, less defined part of the role that captures the most attention from Canadians. The one that encompasses general duties as consoler, congratulator, and booster-in-chief. Duties that ought to mostly be a joy to perform.

Who wouldn’t be lifted by visiting and delighting enthusiastic schoolchildren, standing as patron to worthy volunteer organizations and handing out Orders of Canada to people on some of the happiest days of their lives? All within the idyllic surrounding of Rideau Hall, one of the prettiest settings in Canada. As jobs go, who wouldn’t be buoyed by it?

Apparently not Ms. Payette, who, according to an independent review of her workplace practices, instead spent her time being miserable and making those around her miserable, while doing less official work than those who came before her.

But what should come next? More Canadians say “no” to this country remaining a constitutional monarchy for generations to come than say “yes.” For the time being, however, Canada’s head of state remains Queen Elizabeth, and someone needs to act for her while she is here.

The mere existence of the job is a sensitive subject. It comes with a salary of nearly $300,000 annually, a home at Rideau Hall, plus perks that include drivers, and a generous life-after-governing-general package that includes money for support staff and projects.

Such courtesies were no doubt once meant to fit the entitlement of overseas nobility appointed by the monarch to a role steeped in a world of class structure. But it is a different world today. The role must reflect the people it is intended to serve, not just Elizabeth Regina.

In 2021, at a time when worries about being seen as too elitist have the prime minister himself too scared to fix the house in which he’s supposed to be living, and given that Payette herself refused to even reside at Rideau Hall, should a home and all its associated domestic trappings still come with the job? Would Canadians be better served if the whole building were opened up to them, as a gallery, or museum, or place of learning?

If the role is primarily a constitutional function, couldn’t a qualified jurist pull double duty, in the way Chief Justice Richard Wagner of the Supreme Court of Canada is now managing?

The prime minister holds the dubious distinction of being the only hiring manager to ever have botched the process as badly as this. The history and weight of this position is too important to screw up again. If a key part of the job’s function ultimately is public relations (for lack of a more elegant phrase), the prime minister must choose someone who actually likes people, wants to interact with them and knows how to treat them well. It’s all about the soft skills.

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Shachi Kurl is President of the Angus Reid Institute, a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation.

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