Julie Payette: Her Majesty's astronaut

Her Majesty’s astronaut

Paul Wells on the history of picking the governor general, and the message Justin Trudeau wants to send in choosing Julie Payette

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Canadian astronaut Julie Payette of Montreal stands with Governor General David Johnston after she was invested into the Order of Canada as Officer during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Friday September 16 2011 . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Canadian astronaut Julie Payette of Montreal stands with Governor General David Johnston after she was invested into the Order of Canada as Officer during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Friday September 16 2011 . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Picking a governor general is a challenge for any prime minister. (Yes, yes, it’s the Queen’s choice, but to say the least, she takes advice well.) Which is an odd thing to say, because the governor general’s formal role in the legislative process is pretty limited. The privy council offers up bills from Parliament for royal assent, which these days they always get. Once in a generation, there’s some confusion over who the legitimate prime minister is, and when that happens the viceroy has an exciting couple of days. Those are basically the only compulsory figures. The rest is receptions and Okanagan wines.

But the choice of a governor general sends a message about the prime minister who chose and the historical moment in which the choice was made. Vincent Massey, the first Canadian governor general, once prefaced a report, in his civilian days, with a quote from St. Augustine: “A nation is an association of reasonable beings united in a peaceful sharing of the things they cherish; therefore, to determine the quality of a nation, you must consider what those things are.” A well-chosen governor general is a big walking hint about which things the prime minister supposes the nation cherishes.

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Massey was pressed into service on short notice when Winston Churchill, back in office as Britain’s prime minister, visited Ottawa in January 1952 and asked Louis St. Laurent whether he could have Lord Alexander back from Rideau Hall, so Alexander could be his minister of defence. Massey was a handy choice to fill St. Laurent’s wish for the first Canadian governor general. He’d been Canada’s high commissioner to London, so was kind of partly British by association, J. W. Pickersgill recalled in his memoir My Years With Louis St. Laurent. His appointment wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers. And indeed it didn’t.

St. Laurent, in a burst of modernizing zeal, sent Pickersgill to ask Massey whether they could stop the practice of women curtsying to the governor general. It was the ’50s, after all. Massey did not think this was a good idea. He “felt the appointment of a Canadian was a big enough departure from precedent,” Pickersgill writes. If women were allowed to remain upright in his presence, it could be pandemonium.

Further innovations followed. By the time Jeanne Sauvé became Canada’s first female governor general, she was not required to curtsy to herself. Sauvé, a former Radio-Canada journalist (you’ll soon notice this is a theme), had been a Liberal MP—it’s often easiest for a prime minister to fill the GG job with somebody he’s had in his caucus—though her partisanship had been laundered through a long stint as Speaker of the Commons, and I remember her as scrupulously regal and benevolent.

Jean Chrétien’s first governor general was Roméo LeBlanc, a former Radio-Canada journalist (see?) who had run his campaign war room in 1993. That’s about as partisan as an appointment gets. The main opposition leaders, Preston Manning and Lucien Bouchard, skipped LeBlanc’s installation in protest. Chrétien explained his reasoning: the main thing a governor general does is entertain world leaders when they visit Ottawa, he said. What do world leaders want to talk about? Politics. Send them LeBlanc. See?

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Remembering Roméo LeBlanc

Still, some of the criticism must have stung Chrétien, because his next choice was Adrienne Clarkson, a former CBC journalist (!) and a confirmed member of the Toronto cultural elite. She read books, and remembered what was in them. She knew artists. She was married to a writer, John Ralston Saul, who took great pleasure in being at least occasionally annoying. I absolutely get the way many Canadians found Clarkson way too grandly pleased with herself, but while she was in Rideau Hall it was, on most days, the most interesting place in Ottawa, and she leaves behind two speeches that stand among the finest Canadian speeches ever.

Paul Martin showed his originality by appointing a former Radio-Canada journalist, Michaëlle Jean, with an even more reliably annoying husband. Jean started off shaky—her public statements made it fair to wonder whether she was even sure Canada was a good idea—but she proved a popular GG.

Fate selected her to be the GG who got to decide whether Stephen Harper was still the prime minister. She decided he was, and entire books were written about what a bad decision that was, and even still, Harper was left shaken by the thought that the decision could be left in the hands of somebody he didn’t know or trust. When his turn to pick a GG came, he picked David Johnston, whose connection with the CBC was refreshingly tenuous (he used to host a couple of chat shows that ran on Newsworld, as the Mother Corp’s all-news channel was then called). Johnston had been a president of great universities, never said anything untoward, and was an excellent choice to at least this extent: you didn’t have to be a supporter of the prime minister to admire the GG he had recommended to the Queen. For once, Harper had preferred a consensus candidate over a wedge.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: On the power of the Governor General

I admit the selection of Julie Payette as Johnston’s successor comes as a surprise. Justin Trudeau had said, in an early interview, that he would make a selection that would reflect “the diversity of Canada.” Payette doesn’t ring a lot of diversity bells. She was even a correspondent, briefly, for a Radio-Canada show. This is not actually a constitutional requirement, although by now we might as well make it one.

Maclean's archive. Scanned images of the print magazine from 1905-2012.

Payette from the pages of Maclean’s in 1999 (Photograph by Peter Bregg)

What Payette does bring is a CV that accurately reflects what this government, and much of the nation, cherishes: she rose as an engineer, computer scientist, pilot and astronaut at a time when women were underrepresented in all those fields, even more so than today. She was a Lady Learning, and Teaching, Code long before Ladies Learning Code existed.

READ MORE: A Q&A with Julie Payette: What’s the scariest part about being in space?

In a position that has seen its share of political lifers, Payette isn’t one. In a role that has known artists and patrons of the arts, she is all about STEM. She’ll put her own stamp on the office. Each of her predecessors did the same. It’ll be a great adventure.