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Governor-General Julie Payette delivers remarks in Ottawa, on March 16, 2018.

Justin Tang

Is it time to replace the Governor-General?

Where former astronaut Julie Payette once seemed an inspired and inspiring choice for the job, she now appears to have been an awful fit. While there have been other governors-general with prickly personalities and out-of-touch egos who have held the position before, few, if any, have generated the kind of disturbing headlines that Ms. Payette has.

There were problems almost from the outset of her mandate, which began in October, 2017. Stories quickly emerged about assault charges in the U.S., which were expunged, and allegations around a fatal car crash she was involved in (and ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in) – both of which seemed to have come as news to the Prime Minister’s Office, in charge of vetting potential candidates for the position.

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There were early stories about the problematic workplace atmosphere that Ms. Payette and her long-time friend and hand-picked secretary, Assunta Di Lorenzo, had created soon after setting up shop. A 2018 survey of civil servants working at Rideau Hall, the Governor-General’s official residence, found that more than two dozen of the 157 people who worked for her reported incidents of harassment.

And now this week’s bombshell: A CBC investigation suggests Ms. Payette has created a workplace environment so toxic it has compelled many employees to leave. Four members of her communications team alone, according to the CBC, have left during the pandemic. Another was due to leave this week and another two have taken leaves of absence.

CBC’s sources describe intolerable working conditions, with Ms. Payette or Ms. Di Lorenzo regularly berating and humiliating staff, often in the company of others. An employee was seen crying in their car after work and other employees were seen crying after private meetings with Ms. Payette. Staff, speaking anonymously, spoke of “tantrums,” “explosions” and “bursts of emotion” that routinely leave employees shaken. There would appear to be few meetings at which at least one staff member isn’t berated.

This has created a steady exodus of employees. Besides those who left this year, five executives departed Ms. Payette’s office in 2018, over a three-month period, allegedly because of the treatment they received. One CBC source called the work environment at Rideau Hall a “house of horrors” and “bullying and harassment at its worst.”

Sadly, this latest report does not come as any great surprise, and builds on reporting the National Post did in 2018. The paper’s investigation detailed serious problems with the way Ms. Payette was adapting, or not, to the position. She has reportedly refused to oversee ceremonies for which the Governor-General had regularly been present, and has drastically cut back on her vice-regal responsibilities. This newspaper, meantime, earlier reported on how her security detail was upset over Ms. Payette’s penchant for keeping it ill-informed of her whereabouts.

Now this.

There is little question that, on paper, Ms. Payette had everything you could possibly hope for in a governor-general. Her resumé is brilliant: an accomplished scientist, a skilled musician and talented singer, multilingual, and, of course, someone who had been to outer space – twice. She was a star candidate, but unfortunately, she seems to have been revealed as more light than heat.

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Ms. Payette was the choice of the Prime Minister’s Office. And it is the Prime Minister’s Office that now has to do something about this situation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can’t, under any circumstances, allow this alleged state of affairs to continue. And having a friendly little chat with Ms. Payette about her need to do better isn’t enough, not by a long shot.

The PMO is ultimately responsible for what goes on inside Rideau Hall. And if there is a work environment there that is as poisonous as the one described in the CBC report, then the PMO has a moral, ethical and, not least of all, legal duty to do something about it. The Prime Minister can’t simply take the Governor-General’s word that all is okay, and that these sources who spoke to the CBC don’t know what they’re talking about.

There should be an independent investigation of these allegations. Employees, past and present, should be able to speak to someone without fear of reprisal. Right now, under the reporting structures inside Rideau Hall, the Governor-General’s secretary, Ms. Di Lorenzo, would purportedly be the one apprised of an allegation of harassment or any type of workplace complaint. What employee is going to take that risk?

Ms. Payette’s mandate doesn’t end until October, 2022. That’s a long ways away. She doesn’t look like she’s having any fun in this job, and beyond that, is making life miserable for others.

She should do the honourable thing and resign.

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