Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland drew a sharp distinction between her support for the office of the Governor General and its current occupant, Julie Payette, in the wake of reporting by CBC News showing unusual spending to meet Payette’s demands for privacy.
Payette is also under fire over claims she’s created a toxic work environment and a culture of fear at Rideau Hall. Seventeen sources told CBC News that Payette and her second-in-command have verbally harassed workers to the point where waves of staff have left the office.
Asked twice on Friday by CBC’s Tom Parry if her government had confidence in Payette, Freeland offered support for her office and the constitutional role it plays, but pointedly did not express explicit confidence in Payette.
“I think Canadians have a great respect for the office of the Governor General and I have that respect as well,” Freeland said.
“But for this Governor General?” asked Parry.
Freeland responded: “The office of the Governor General plays a very important role in that system. And, I think like the overwhelming majority of Canadians, I have a great deal of respect for that office and for that role.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau selected Payette — a former astronaut, computer engineer, pilot, academic, musician and executive — to take on the viceregal role as the Queen’s representative in Canada in October 2017. The selection has been fraught with controversy from the beginning, and Trudeau has been notably silent in offering any defence of her.
The National Post and Radio Canada also reported Payette’s time at the Montreal Science Centre foreshadowed the issues to come at Rideau Hall, raising questions about the Trudeau government’s vetting process.
Trudeau has only said publicly his government is committed to ensuring federally regulated workplaces are harassment free. The Privy Council Office also launched an external, independent investigation last month into the workplace environment following CBC’s report on the alleged harassment.
Although Payette’s role is mostly ceremonial, it can be important during a minority government. Payette is bound by constitutional convention to follow the advice of the prime minister if the PM requests a dissolution or prorogation of Parliament, but she is empowered to dismiss a government that has been defeated on a vote of confidence if it refuses to step aside.
Barbara Messamore, a history professor at the University of the Fraser Valley who studies the role of governors general, said normally the government of the day would respond to such criticism. Part of Payette’s role is to maintain the dignity of the office, and she is not supposed to respond to controversy, Messamore said.
“It’s Trudeau’s government that would have to speak up to defend the office,” she said. “It’s not about protecting Madame Payette; it’s about protecting the dignity of the Crown.”
Carleton University’s Philippe Lagassé, an expert in the Westminster system, said the office is currently being seen as a source of controversy and difficulty, which is not in keeping with what Canadians expect from Rideau Hall. He said damage is being done to the overall image of one of the highest offices in the country.
“At this stage right now, an office that is supposed to be above partisanship, it’s supposed to be above controversy and represent Canadians as a whole, is finding itself having to dodge and weave and explain various things in a way that really don’t make it out to be the dignified office that it’s supposed to be,” Lagassé said.
“Unless drastic measures are taken to rectify the situation, this doesn’t seem like a tenable situation going forward.”
Freeland also responded to questions around Payette’s spending more than $250,000 in public funds to study and design a private staircase for herself and to install access doors and a gate around her office at Rideau Hall. Three years into her five-year mandate, Payette still has not moved in, and her office has requested that more work be done.
“All of us who have the privilege of serving Canadians have to really be mindful that when we spend money, we are spending the money of Canadians,” Freeland said. “I think Canadian journalists and Canadians absolutely have the right to look carefully at how we spend Canadians’ money.”
Payette’s press secretary, Ashlee Smith, has previously suggested it was not in the public interest to ask about Payette’s living arrangements, saying it “seems contrary to respecting the life and privacy of a person.”
Smith also said there are “outstanding issues regarding universal accessibility and privacy” at Rideau Hall. The office also has concerns about security, she said, especially after an armed man drove his truck through the gates at Rideau Hall last month and headed on foot toward the prime minister’s house before being arrested.