Julie Payette Teaches Us to Look Beyond a Resumé

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

On paper, ex-Governor General Julie Payette had done it all: from attending prestigious private schools to completing a successful university career in engineering, her upbringing alluded to a fulfilling destiny. When she orbited the earth on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1999 to work on the Canadarm, Payette became the first Canadian to board the International Space Station. Canadians were curious to see the kind of viewpoint she would bring after her esteemed work as an astronaut. 

In less than a year, sixteen people left their positions because of Payette’s harassment. All the while, no one blinked an eye. 

When Payette was sworn in in 2017, Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first female astronaut, said without hesitation that Payette would be “perfect for the position” and would “bring a lot of charm into the role.” However, Payette’s early resignation on January 21st revealed deeper truths, conveying a very different story than what her accomplishments and accolades suggest. 

In a review conducted by the Privy Council’s Office, Payette created a work environment that was “hostile” and “poisoned,” fuelled by her persistent toxic behaviour. Further, ninety-two individuals who worked under Payette at Rideau Hall detailed her “demeaning comments” and “public humiliation” tactics. In less than a year, sixteen people left their positions because of Payette’s harassment. All the while, no one blinked an eye.  

To be a proud Canadian is to wholly accept fundamental Canadian values built on trust, respect, and peace. Yet when one of the most powerful figures in Canada cannot fulfill their role with these principles, they should not continue to be rewarded for it after resigning two years early. 

Under the Governor General’s Act, Payette is still entitled to an annual pension of $150,000 per year, plus the ability to claim up to $209,000 annually to cover any expenses related to her former position. Section 4.5(2) under the Governor General’s Act guarantees this amount for life. Should she receive her pension and expense allowance after her resignation Payette may be reluctant to accept any accountability for her actions.

A tax-paying citizen has every right to know why they should continue to fund an individual who could not do their job with the slightest degree of empathy for others, someone who made her staff feel as though they were “walking on eggshells” around her. To be a proud Canadian is to wholly accept fundamental Canadian values built on trust, respect, and peace. Yet when one of the most powerful figures in Canada cannot fulfill their role with these principles, they should not continue to be rewarded for it after resigning two years early. 

We were so blinded by her accomplishments that we should have squinted, tilted our heads to the side, and peered a little closer.

This incident prompted me to take a closer look at Payette’s history and question why she was not criticized earlier. Payette left her role at the Montreal Science Centre in 2016 after complaints surfaced against her verbal abuse. During her three-year tenure as Governor General, she went through seven executive assistants. In a portrait taken in her office in 2018, a NASA tapestry hangs behind her that distastefully reads “I Need My Space.” Anonymity, in fact, was something that she was very particular about from her first day in office. Payette cost taxpayers over $250,000 in privacy demands, which included a new staircase that was never built, and a series of doors and gates. We never thought twice about it, we figured it was just another one of her quirks despite knowing that anonymity conflicted with the extremely public role of Governor General. We were so blinded by her accomplishments that we should have squinted, tilted our heads to the side, and peered a little closer. Perhaps then we would have realised that the red flags she was holding all along were not the Canadian flag. 

The freedom and flexibility that comes with Governor Generals’ salaries and expense accounts should have been called into question well before Payette’s misconduct. The expense accounts across all previous Governor Generals have certainly added up, with David Johnston spending over $76,650 within the first six months of leaving Rideau Hall. The high income after leaving office is justified in a situation where the government might need advice for, say, an election or other governmental duties. The idea is that the ex-Governor General should not need to worry about how a certain decision may affect their employability in the future, which is why they are given a guaranteed annual income. In all, the money can help them keep their interests “independent of the office.”

What does this mean in the context of Payette? Should an individual who was trusted with the safety and wellbeing of her staff be entitled to evoking decisions for the good of the people? Will the government continue to call her up for future advice? 

The government’s vetting process failed the people, and no amount of awards or missions to outer space could ever change that. 

These are loaded questions that ask us to create a distinction between an individual’s professional intelligence and emotional intelligence. In the case of the ex-Governor General, one cannot separate a person’s inherent sense of respect and understanding for others from their fitness to represent the Crown and carry out their duty to the people. It is analogous to asking if a prodigious medical doctor who hates people is fit for the job. 

The people that Payette so relentlessly bullied remain at the core of this issue. While articles will continue to buzz about where everyone went wrong, it is imperative to take preventative measures not only for the sake of protecting Canadian values, but also so that employees at Rideau Hall no longer feel so inferior when they come into work each morning. The government’s vetting process failed the people, and no amount of awards or missions to outer space could ever change that. 

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