This article was first published in July 2017
If you're looking to fill the role of a national symbol, it helps to find someone who already is one. For a generation of Canadian school kids, Julie Payette was that kind of national idol, the woman who ignored people who told her she could never be an astronaut and went into space.
The role of the modern governor-general is now to be that kind of symbol: Prime ministers no longer make it a political reward, but attempt to find someone above the fray who represents what Canada is, or aspires to be. So who better than someone who slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the heavens using a mechanical arm with Canada written on it?
You can almost hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's entourage rubbing their hands together. Ms. Payette radiates so many things the Liberals want to associate with Mr. Trudeau's Canada. She embodies science, technology and innovation. She's a woman who smashed a glass ceiling and could easily astronaut-splain computers and aeronautics to the rest of us in six languages. She can serve, as she has over years of school visits, as an example to young girls with aspirations in science, space, or any traditionally male-dominated field. She's a Quebecker who has succeeded as a representative of Canada.
And yet, Mr. Trudeau's Liberals can't expect this appointment to bring them political benefits that carry through the next election. Governor-generals are symbols, but for all their viceregal stature, they're not potent political ones.
The announcement might help the Liberals change the channel from the unpopular $10.5-million settlement paid to Omar Khadr. (Since Mr. Trudeau discussed Ms. Payette's appointment with the Queen in Scotland on July 5, the timing was not set solely for that purpose.) It might register a little imprint on Mr. Trudeau's image. But naming a governor-general is not an indelible political symbol that lasts.
Former prime minister Paul Martin's advisers were also chuffed with themselves in 2005 when Mr. Martin named Michaëlle Jean, a youngish, glamorous, Haitian-born francophone known as a documentary presenter on Quebec TV. But by the time Mr. Martin's government fell less than four months later, voters weren't thinking of Ms. Jean.
In matters of governance, the governor-general is like a third-string goalie: You want them to be sharp in case it ever really matters, but it rarely does. Their roles are properly constrained by the dictates of constitutional convention. B.C. Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon didn't really have broad discretion to decide if she'd let NDP Leader John Horgan become premier – she could follow constitutional conventions or go rogue. In that regard, the most crucial thing a governor-general needs is an understanding of the limitations of their role.
Does Ms. Payette have that? It's hard to tell. On Thursday, she didn't have an answer to questions about the governor-general's role, but suggested she wanted to promote science and a "knowledge society." Worthy, but worthy viceregal agendas don't usually mark the everyday lives of Canadians.
What matters is the political metaphysics: The governor-general's job is to be the Queen's representative in Canada, but the modern function is to keep the ceremonial trappings of national authority out of the hands of the prime minister. The PM doesn't hand out the Order of Canada or wear a uniform and call himself the commander-in-chief, notes Carleton University political scientist Philippe Lagassé. That's a good thing. It reminds us the politician is supposed to be a national servant, not the nation.
Appointees as governors-general have evolved toward Canadian symbols who are supposed to somehow "reflect the nation back at themselves," Prof. Lagassé said. British lords initially represented the Queen, then Canadian worthies, then PMs started recommending political veterans. Since Adrienne Clarkson was appointed in 1999, Prof. Lagassé said, there's "an effort to seek out governors-general who were what we wanted to be."
Ms. Payette is already a success as that kind of symbol. Opposition leaders praised the choice and even if he won't win votes, Mr. Trudeau can be pleased.
There's already a school named after Ms. Payette in Whitby, Ont. In Quebec, she's a popular figure who will represent Canada. On Thursday, she talked about seeing the glory of Canada from space, but noted there are no borders within it.
Mr. Trudeau won't find many who will fight about the choice, and when you're naming a national symbol, that is a big part of success.