The risky tag team of Julie Payette and Justin Trudeau -

The risky tag team of Julie Payette and Justin Trudeau

Stephen Maher: Our system relies on vice-regal distance from the government, and this week the line was blurred

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau bowes to the new the Governor general Julie Payette at the senate in Ottawa, Ontario, October 2, 2017.  The former astronaut Julie Payette is the 29th Governor General of Canada.  / AFP PHOTO / Lars Hagberg        (Photo credit should read LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau bowes to the new the Governor general Julie Payette at the senate in Ottawa, Ontario, Oct. 2, 2017. (LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

When I came to Ottawa to cover politics in 2004, I was a republican.

I believed that it was ridiculous for a particular family to have, by birthright, a constitutional role, and doubly ridiculous for Canadians to placidly put up with it. I thought we would be better off becoming a republic, that it would be a final step toward our journey to full nationhood.

Over time, watching politics up close, though, I came to believe that while there might be a better system—I like Ireland’s arrangement—as a practical matter, it’s likely not worth the trouble of changing our system, both because it would be a big project, and we’ve got more pressing issues, and because we would risk giving up something that works pretty well.

There’s one great thing about a constitutional monarchy, especially a twice-removed one, with a ceremonial Canadian standing in for a distant, powerless monarch.

Whoever takes up residence in Rideau Hall is a non-partisan embodiment of the nation, playing the role of head of state and symbolically leading our armed forces, a ceremonial but not meaningless role.

The great thing about this arrangement is that no matter how you feel about the prime minister of the day, you can be loyal to the Crown, as embodied by whomever the prime minister has appointed to the job. I know a lot of people who despised and feared Stephen Harper. They were always able to express their legitimate political views without being disloyal Canadians.

READ MORE: Julie Payette takes on junk science—and tests the limits of her job title

In the United States, where there is no division between head of state and head of government, they don’t have that luxury. The president is the symbolic embodiment of the nation and leader of the armed forces, so every American ought to be loyal to the commander-in-chief, even if he’s an orange demagogue who may have conspired with the Russians to get elected.

In comparison, the prime minister of Canada is just the head of a committee. Literally nothing they do is beyond criticism or shrouded in the mystical hoo-ha that invariably collects around the embodiment of a nation. They sometimes behave presidentially, and try to subtly take up the turf properly occupied by the governor general, but they can’t push it too far without someone—maybe someone in Buckingham Palace—pushing them back in line.

In order for the system to work, the governor general has to stay out of politics.

That means that they have to say things that just about everyone can agree with. Young people are our future. Education is very important. It’s past time that Canadians did more to reconcile with Indigenous people. Diversity is a source of strength. Volunteers do an awful lot of great work across this country every day.

The problem with that is that if everyone agrees with something, it’s not very interesting.

On Wednesday, the new Governor General, Julie Payette, said some interesting things at the Canadian Science Policy Conference gala in Ottawa.

Payette is an extraordinary woman, a Montrealer with two degrees in engineering, a pilot, a deep-sea diver, a mother and an astronaut. During her second mission to space, she brought along a jersey of Maurice “Rocket” Richard. She’s amazingly accomplished, as a scientist and a leader, and there’s every reason to think that she will be as fine a Governor General as we have ever had.

Her speech Wednesday raised eyebrows, though, because of some impolitic comments about climate change and religion. She took a mocking tone, laughing about astrology and alternative medicine.

On religion, she complained that “we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.”

And on climate change, she lamented that “still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period?”

When eyebrows went up, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended her. They are all on thin ice here, not because Payette spoke about climate change, which she ought to do, likely every time she speaks, but because there must be distance between her and them. Her comments, and their defence, risks alienating Canadians who dislike the Liberals and are suspicious about climate change and hostile to anyone making disparaging remarks about religious faith.

If the Liberals and the Governor General appear to be part of a tag team, working over knuckle-dragging anti-science rubes, then Rideau Hall loses some of its distance from the government, which is bad. She must keep her distance.

I agree with everything Payette said, and it would be entirely appropriate for her to say it in her role as a scientist, or as a politician, but she is no longer a scientist, and she has never been a politician.

The system depends on vice-regal distance from the government of the day, so that even the most conservative conservative in southern Alberta is able to listen politely to Payette without feeling like she’s being lectured by Trudeau’s lackey.

So far, Trudeau has governed the country without alienating Westerners in the way his father did. That might change. If it does, it’s especially important that the Governor General is not too close to him.

Payette didn’t get to space, or Rideau Hall, because she shrinks from a challenge.

I predict she’ll find a better balance in the days ahead.



The risky tag team of Julie Payette and Justin Trudeau

  1. “So far, Trudeau has governed the country without alienating Westerners the way that his father did” Not sure on this. Sr had 13 years to do it. Jr has matched that in two and if the trend continues the border fence will be going up. His stand on oil and pipelines will be his undoing and by extension the end of liberals in Canada.

    • How many pipelines did Harper build, Dave?

      And a border fence? Really? Try growing up.

  2. Evolution was announced in 1858…..and the Vatican agrees with it.

    Harp is evangelical, and says God bless Canada…..Justin is catholic and we have a religious service coming up for Nov 11

    So let’s not get silly about a scientist saying something scientific.

  3. No surprise to see Sheer try to exploit Payettes science advocacy.

    The Trump, Bannon, Sheer, Rebel Media base loves the most backward, anti rational, fundamentalist, magical, para normal thinking. Sheer delivers.

    Sheer will make Harper’s anti science campaigns seem amateurish.

    • We’ll have to start calling him ‘Sheer nonsense’. LOL

    • It’s only been the last 15 years or so that it’s become fashionable to ridicule healthy skepticism in the area of science. Climate Agenda/Science is heavily politicized but to this day it’s never been proven that mankind is responsible for global warming so of course your going to have people out there that are not sold on commonly accepted theory.. which is constantly having holes poked into it which makes you think… maybe it has less to do with science and more to do with politics.

      • Maybe you have more to do with partisanship than science and logic.

    • I agree. Just let Payette do her thing. She’s smart which I cannot say the
      are the leaders of the opposition. Too much political correctness by previous
      GG’s and sheer stupidity by the Trump- like trolls we even have in Canada.

  4. “…playing a role,” “symbolically leading” “ceremoniously leading.”

    When I read that this works “pretty well” I cringed. To be loyal to Canada, in my opinion the greatest nation I’ve ever lived in, I don’t need to be loyal to the Crown.

    I believe that Queen Elizabeth, her husband and all her descendants are very nice and decent people. Governors General, past and present, seem to be admirable people as well.

    But the Queen, her children and grandchildren and the Governor General are symbolically and ceremonially leading. If the British like that, it’s their country. If some Canadians like that, I respect their choice. But at some point the Canadian government should consult the Canadian people, perhaps through a referendum, whether Canada needs a Governor General.

    I think not. Not at all.

    • Particularly the current one who appears to be extremely arrogant and condescending.

      • Only to the stupid

        • Really Emily-you think she’s stupid too?

  5. BOTH the GG and PM are riding high in their respective god-complexes!
    Dare I say that they are in bed with each other?!

    Trudeau appointed Payette just hours before summer break, and in the FOUR months we have been paying her, she has done nothing but pose for photos!
    And we have paid her media coverage on her divorce!

    Like the rest of Trudeau$ appointments, over paid with no skill set. Not even a “pretty face”.
    Payette’s only claim to fame, is operating the robotic arm! Like our LGBTQ appointment in San Fran and the Shame-us appointment to Veterans Affairs. Their only qualification is their kiss ass “special” relationship with Turdo…and we now know, that he brings nothing to his position but a big mouth.

    Trudeau knew Canadians were drowning in tax debt, and still he over appointed and over paid everyone.
    God-complexes on tax dollar$, is a bad combination in any profession!

    • Who is gawd’s name are you talking about lady??

      Go soak your head!

    • The problem here must be that English is your second language.

      • Actually, Jan, it might be that she never learned how to read.

  6. Just how stupid does Gerald Butts & Cathy Telford think most of us Canadian’s are ????

    • Well you can see the stupidity on this page alone!

      • That’s the first time I’ve seen you be self-deprecating Emily!!

    • Actually, they don’t think that Canadians are stupid at all. Well most are not stupid. There is just that group that the Conservatives wooed with the “nice hair” ads and “if he shows up with his pants on” comment and the Stephen Harper “ka-ching” tour. I know that appealled to you and your buddy Jerome below. Very intellectual stuff for you both.

      • Harper was quite articulate and knew not to waste tax payers $$. Neither of these apply to Trudeau 2.

  7. If you disconnect from the monarchy, then Canada becomes a republic – like Cuba, Venezuela, the U.S.A. Do you really want that?

    • Keep the GG…appointed as now, but representing the sovereignty of Canada

      Ditch the monarchy……which isn’t even ours, and does us no good at all.

  8. So now, you would expect an intelligent, accomplished individual to kowtow to the mythology and superstitions of the “faith” above all crowd? Let’s have some respect here, OK?

  9. “I know a lot of people who despised and feared Stephen Harper. They were always able to express their legitimate political views without being disloyal Canadians.” Not if they worked for the government: Harpo muzzled them, especially if they were scientists, and/or made their jobs redundant. At least one good thing came out of this kerfuffle: now we know that Scheer, in addition to being opposed to abortion and LGBTQ rights, is a creationist and climate change denier – he probably thought no one would notice. As for religionists, they have a long history of persecuting and even murdering scientists so merely feeling disaffection is an improvement.

    • Better Scheer as PM than Mr. money wasting surfer dude. Scheer can actually say full sentences!

      • Full sentences…..about crap.

      • Scheer is a real lightweight, vacuous, malleable and easily led. Hired Rebel Media executive as Campaign Manager. Now look at statement on creationism versus evolution ie religion or reason, he started courting the fundamentalists and evangelicals.
        They would have huge influence in a Scheer government.

        • You’ll love Scheer as our PM in two years. The Surfer Dude is flaming out. His only “accomplishment” is the economy (bolstered by a housing and construction boom and a doubling of oil prices since he took office-neither of which he had anything to do with!). The housing part is undergoing correction and along with that our GDP will reduce by ~40%. Goodbye Surfer Dude!!

          • Actually, Jerome, oil prices were about $45 per barrel when Trudeau took over and they are now about $55 per barrel. So if that is Conservative math for doubling, then so be it. Writing facts and truth have never been something that you have practised. But you did acknowledge that the economy was an accomplishment of Trudeau’s. It is too bad that Harper couldn’t have had “economy” to go along with his list of accomplishments like electoral fraud, robocalls, cutting 2 cents off of the GST thereby increasing our debt well over 100 billion dollars etc etc.

          • Oil bottomed out at $26.03 USD in February 2016, very early in Trudeau’s term and a month before Morneau’s first budget. It’s more than doubled since then. Your “correction” of Jerome’s post was academic and meaningless.

          • In Nov. 2015 when Trudeau took office oil was $42.05, Feb. 2016 it was $29.67 and by May 2016 it was up to $50.43. To say that oil doubled since Trudeau took office is BS cheery picking. “very early in Trudeau’s term” can as readily be said to be May 2016 when oil was almost as high as today.

    • How can S. Maher forget Taliban Jack? A decent and honorable leader would have stopped this, in the event he would have stood in the house to condemn the use of such abusive language and present his excuses to his colleague Layton.

  10. Some of the comments are about how smart the GG is. Yet, despite this smartness she fails in understanding the role she now plays – that of a non-partisan. Maybe she will learn from the largely negative reaction to her free lancing comments. With her contempt for religion how will she deal with a future PM Scheer or Singh. Her predecessor never got into this kind of muddle and misunderstanding. Hopefully, she is smart enough to learn from him but the degree of disdaining she expressed makes one wonder.

    • She spoke of creationism not religion in general.
      Creationism is not true. Evolution is a fact.
      Climate change is a fact. There is no debate. There are not two sides.
      Why won’t the media defend her?

    • She spoke of creationism not religion in general.
      Creationism is not true. Evolution is a fact.
      Climate change is a fact. There is no debate. There are not two sides.
      Why won’t the media defend her?

    • Stating facts in non-partisan. As for a future PM Scheer or Singh, well it is you having a problem with the facts.

  11. Like many Canadians impressed by Julie Payette’s accomplishments I was pleased by her appointment as Governor General. It is extremely disappointing that she has taken advantage of her reputation, to show where her bread is buttered with her blatantly Liberal comments on climate change. Certainly, as a private citizen or an elected politician, that would have been quite in order but, she is supposed to be above political commentary. Moreover, the personal resume on which she trafficked is certainly no better than that of “denier” Harrison Schmitt, a former astronaut, moon walker, earth scientist and US senator. Her dismissive attitude towards those who do not accept her views was uncalled for. She could have at least shown the class of the late Piers Sellers, an astronaut “believer” and a rational and courteous presenter of his viewpoint.

    A few years ago, eight former astronauts and forty-one other retired senior NASA employees, alarmed by the growing politicisation and warmism within the agency requested, in a letter to the NASA director, “… that NASA and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies refrain from including unproven remarks in public releases and websites.” Wise words to guide a science-based agency or a newly-minted GG.

    • There is nothing “Liberal” about climate change. It is a fact not a political ideology.

    • And she did this with extreme arrogance and condescension leaving those who disagree with her opinions on creation and climate change believing that she thinks they’re stupid. She demonstrated the tact of a toilet bowl!!

      • Well your comments are stupid, Jerome. And by extension we can only draw one conclusion about you, There are some more facts for you.

    • You forgot to mention that Harrison Schmitt was a Republican. That blows any credibility he has for being on the side of fact or truth. Unfortunately we have the far right exploiting the same tactics in Canada right now. Your disingenuous whining fits right in with them. Our GG stated facts and there was no reason for her to give any validity to creationists or climate deniers. If they are offended, well too bad.

      As for that NASA letter, the group of 49 did not back up their reasons for the letter. And their remarks were rejected by NASA itself and various other scientists and groups who stated that there was plenty of proof for human effects on climate change. So much for “wise words”.

      • Wow! Such certitude. Anyone who disagrees with you is, in your eyes, clearly unworthy – especially if, like Schmitt, one doesn’t subscribe to your politics. You have such confidence that I can only assume that you have at least one PhD in a relevant science.

        As a plebian with only a couple of lowly Bachelor degrees in geoscience, and a couple of years “hands on” in meteorology, I clearly cannot match your erudition. However, as a retired scientist, I tend to consort with others of my ilk, and I’ve only met two who are not sceptical about the “accepted wisdom”.

        After closely following the debate for a couple of decades, I remain sceptical but, if someone (anyone) can come up with verifiable proof that humanity is capable of adjusting the earth’s thermostat, I will cheerfully come aboard.

  12. Andrew Scheer’s tweet about Trudeau not supporting “Muslims” reeks of utter hypocrisy given his connection to Rebel Media and his party’s antics regarding the Niqab.

    Scheer should also be honest about directing his comments at the one who actually said the words. But hey, honesty from the Conservatives is asking too much.

  13. I look forward to Payette visiting the Ktunxana in BC and explaining that there really is not such things as a “spirit bear”.

    Former Macleans writer Chris Selley and made the same point yesterday in the National Post. The media won’t have any trouble with the contradiction of bashing traditional religions while venerating aboriginal spirit worship. As Selley also pointed out, the chattering classes in Canada were able to immediately convince themselves that Michaelle Jean was never a separatist and shame anyone who dared point out that she was, so they have proved they can ably practice whatever cognitive dissonance they need to to remain onside with their progressive feelings.

    But that same cognitive dissonance might be a more difficult act for the GG, especially if she keeps opening her mouth with forceful opinions.

    • You can have your or any religion or indigenous spiritual beliefs.

      But you can’t impose them on the rest of us, and change rational public policies.

      Science is real, vaccines work, evolution And climate science are real,

      • A blathering response that has zero to do with what I just said. The issue here is the GG’s behaviour and her disdain for those she sees as inferior. And how she is going to square her progressive beliefs with the “reconcilation” movement. Most of the chattering classes can maintain all those contradictions by pretending they don’t exist without ever having to answer for them. As GG, she can’t.

  14. Initially I thought Payette would make a wonderful Governor-General, and then I saw the picture of Trudeau bowing to her and THE SMERK ON HER FACE. Next came the “SPEECH” not just laughing at, but making fun of Canadians. She will never represent our Gracious Queen in my eyes. Trudeau and his side-kick McKenna better keep their distance.