Skip to main content

David Johnston, who stepped down as governor-general a year ago, has written a book called Trust. Julie Payette should read it.

On Oct. 2, Ms. Payette will mark her first anniversary as Canada’s 29th governor-general. The year has been controversial, not because of what she has done, but because of what she hasn’t done.

The Queen’s representative has launched a review of which organizations she should continue to serve as patron. The goal is to determine how the Queen’s representative in Canada can "serve and evolve along with the Canadian population of today,” according to a spokeswoman.

But the fact remains that a plethora of organizations, from Scouts Canada to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, are waiting to hear whether Ms. Payette will or won’t continue to be their patron. The Winnipeg Free Press reports that the Governor-General has not set foot in Manitoba in her first year.

As The Globe has reported, Ms. Payette chafes at restrictions to her personal freedom imposed by the need to protect her security. She is not resident at Rideau Hall, citing renovations at Government House. Rumours abound of demoralized staff and a workload that could be charitably described as light.

These criticisms might not be fair. Ms. Payette, a former astronaut with a background in engineering and considerable experience in the non-profit sector, is well suited to the task of reconstructing the role of governor-general. At 54, she is younger than many of her predecessors. As a single mother, gifted with an impressive ability to speak powerfully and without notes, she has the potential to connect with Canadians on a personal, I-know-what-you’re-experiencing-because-I’ve-been-there-too level.

Perhaps there is a role for the Queen’s representative in Canada beyond that of shaking hands, cutting ribbons and pinning medals. If so, Ms. Payette has a duty to tell us what she believes that role should be, and how she proposes to carry it out.

Open this photo in gallery:

Governor-General Julie Payette takes part in the annual Inspection of the Ceremonial Guard at Rideau Hall in Ottawa in August.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

David Johnston, her predecessor, was very old school. His schedule was, according to those who had to keep up with him, exhausting. In his seven years on the job, he travelled constantly, showed up at everything and was unfailingly gracious, engaged and involved. Talking or listening to him made you feel good.

He was also well versed in constitutional issues. Former prime minister Stephen Harper asked him to stay an extra two years because there were fears that the 2015 election could produce a hung parliament, potentially requiring the governor-general to make a difficult choice over whom to invite to form a government.

Ms. Payette might also be called on to make a difficult choice after next year’s election, just as Michaëlle Jean had to do during the parliamentary crisis of 2008. If so, the current GG is amply qualified to handle the situation.

Mr. Johnston had a strong and deep sense of duty toward Canada and his fellow Canadians. In his new book, which goes on sale next month, he writes that democracy, justice and the rule of law depend on "a trust in each other as citizens, and a trust between citizens and the institutions that stand for and serve them.”

Many people fear that this all-important bond of civic trust is under threat − from populist politicians who undermine trust in their quest to demonize the Other; from social media that leave citizens confused over what can be trusted; from a pervasive narcissism that undermines personal bonds of trust.

Mr. Johnston is so concerned he wrote a book about it. "This lack of trust globally troubles me, and the unstable state of trust in Canada gives me acute concern,” he writes.

As the representative of the Crown in Canada, the governor-general is uniquely responsible for building trust in Canada’s democratic institutions. She represents us. She embodies our sovereign democracy.

Ms. Payette has a choice to make. She can step forward with a new and different vision for how the governor-general should speak to and for Canada. Or she can step up and carry out her role as traditionally defined.

But whatever she decides, Canadians need to know that the Governor-General is fulfilling her duties. Her biggest challenge right now is to convince us that she is worthy of our trust.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe