OTTAWA –Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will move within weeks to name a new governor general after former astronaut Julie Payette resigned from the post in disgrace Thursday, following the release of a damning report that found her and her top aide responsible for workplace harassment at Rideau Hall.
Trudeau received the report that outlined “worrisome” and “very serious” concerns about Payette late last week and met with her on Wednesday night for a conversation that Dominic Leblanc, the president of the Queens’ Privy Council, said led to the governor general offering her resignation the following afternoon.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Trudeau had pressed her to step down.
“They had a conversation around the importance of a harassment-free workplace and the governor general made the decision to tender her resignation,” Leblanc told CBC.
Leblanc declined to say whether Trudeau or the government believed she was in the wrong, after Payette’s public statement seemed to downplay her own responsibility.
In a two-page statement, Payette apologized but distanced herself from the allegations against her.
“Everyone has a right to a healthy and safe work environment, at all times and under all circumstances. It appears this was not always the case at the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General. Tensions have arisen at Rideau Hall over the past few months and for that, I am sorry,” Payette wrote.
“While no formal complaints or official grievances were made during my tenure … I still take these allegations very seriously,” Payette said, adding she had welcomed the review and encouraged staff to participate.
“We all experience things differently, but we should always strive to do better, and be attentive to one another’s perceptions.”
She said her decision “comes at an opportune time, as my father’s health has seriously worsened in the last few weeks and my family needs my help.”
Leblanc confirmed that Payette’s hand-picked top staffer, Assunta di Lorenzo, had also resigned. However, he would not say whether the government believed that Payette and di Lorenzo bore the blame for what former employees said was a “nightmare” and toxic workplace.
“It doesn’t serve a great purpose now that the governor general has resigned to ascribe blame to individuals,” Leblanc told CBC.
A former communications director for prime minister Jean Chretien called the situation “a disaster” for the Trudeau government.
“It’s outrageous that this was allowed to fester for as long as it did,” Peter Donolo said in an interview with the Star.
Donolo blamed the government and the Privy Council Office for failing to spot red flags before Payette’s appointment, and then failing to act once the media had highlighted them.
From the outset, he said, it was clear that Payette was not “temperamentally suited” to the job, seemed “grouchy” and demonstrated little interest in a governor general’s basic duties.
“And once she had the job, they allowed her to be set up for failure.”
Donolo said the Prime Minister’s Office and the government should also never have allowed Payette to install a close friend, who had no experience in government, as her secretary.
“Once it became clear that the place was falling apart, they should have removed her immediately,” he said. “When your smoke alarm goes off, you don’t wait until the house is engulfed in flames until you do something about it. And on this one the smoke detector went off within days or weeks of her getting the job. They should have stepped in and taken decisive action.”
A former employee of Rideau Hall, who did not agree to be identified because they are still in the public service, reacted with relief to the news, saying many never expected Payette would step down.
“The fact that she’s resigned is the best outcome we could have hoped for, for all of us who have seen this train wreck,” said the former staffer.
The worst fear that many former and current staff members who participated in the review had, according to the source, was that the prime minister would appoint Payette to an ambassadorship or allow some other exit where she might still be in charge of employees.
Payette was said to have “belittled” employees and “screamed” at them, and the former staffer who spoke to the Star said employees were afraid to make formal complaints or put their names to complaints.
Payette, the source said, insisted that nothing was wrong, and defended herself as under attack because she was a strong woman in a leadership position, of whom others were jealous.
The former staffer said her resignation shows, however, that the independent review process worked, and “can lead to action and outcomes that the employees deserved.”
“So many times we don’t see a system that works and I think in this case the government has done what is needed. Bullies should not be tolerated.”
Trudeau acknowledged Payette’s resignation in a written statement, saying she “has fulfilled her duties to uphold parliamentary democracy and serve the public.
“Every employee in the Government of Canada has the right to work in a safe and healthy environment, and we will always take this very seriously,” Trudeau said. “Today’s announcement provides an opportunity for new leadership at Rideau Hall to address the workplace concerns raised by employees during the review.”
Trudeau said that Richard Wagner, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, will fulfil the duties of the governor general on an interim basis, and a recommendation on a permanent replacement will be made to Queen Elizabeth “in due course.”
Leblanc told CTV the post cannot remain vacant “for months and months.”
He said the government “will take its responsibility in the coming days,” adding the government is open to improve the screening process. But he declined to commit to returning to an independent process created by Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper to come up with recommendations.
The unprecedented resignation of the Queen’s representative in Canada came after the report was submitted by Quintet Consulting, a firm contracted to do an independent review of allegations first revealed by CBC News in the summer.
Leblanc, son of former governor general Romeo Leblanc, said the report was “robust” but would not be fully released due to federal privacy laws. It might be released in redacted form, he suggested, saying the government will comply with the Access to Information law.
RCMP members of the governor general’s protective security detail had also reportedly felt her wrath.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, wrote, “Now that the independent advisers have completed their review of the workplace harassment at Rideau Hall, we hope that our members will be able to experience a much more positive and rewarding work environment that, frankly, should be the norm.”
Trudeau named Payette as governor general in July 2017, and installed her in October 2017, From the start, her appointment drew criticism, as the Liberal government was slammed for failing to properly vet her, both personally and professionally.
In a report by iPolitics, it was revealed that Payette had been charged with assault in 2011 while she was living in the United States, a charge that was later dropped.
The Star reported that in the summer of 2011, Payette had fatally struck a woman while driving her SUV in Maryland. Theresa “Terry” Potts, 55, was pronounced dead after being rushed to hospital. No charges were laid. An eight-month investigation by the St. Mary’s County Sheriff found that Potts attempted to cross the road when she shouldn’t have — Payette had the green light, and a witness said they saw her vehicle swerve in an attempt to avoid the collision.
Once in office, Payette’s tenure was marked by reports that she was not happy in the job and had curtailed the usual patronage roles for charities that her predecessors had taken on. She came under fire for a speech in which she seemed to mock the religious beliefs of those who don’t believe in evolution or the science of climate change.
She refused to move into Rideau Hall, the governor general’s official residence, which, according to CBC, underwent approximately $ 250,000 in renovations to satisfy Payette’s desire for privacy — including $ 140,000 designing a private staircase that was never built.
The Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation estimated in 2020 that Rideau Hall renovations since 2017 — the year Payette was appointed — totalled more than $ 500,000.
The governor general also enjoys a second official residence located within the Citadelle de Québec in Quebec City.
But the more damning allegations emerged when CBC News reported that Payette and di Lorenzo, a longtime friend who was hired to be the secretary to the governor general — a position usually held by a senior member of the public service — had treated employees disrespectfully, making demeaning comments to them and using raised voices.
The National Post reported Payette’s time leading the Montreal Science Centre was also marked by allegations of harsh conduct towards employees.