Through its history, the Governors General of Canada had come from many backgrounds. There were academics, soldiers, broadcasters and politicians. Very little changed in regard to the profession of the vice-regal until Canada received its first astronaut Governor General, Julie Payette.
Payette was born in Montreal on Oct. 20, 1963, where her mother Jacqueline was a theatre accountant and her father, Andre, was an engineer. Her family had been in Montreal for 12 generations at the time of her birth.
As a child, her ambitions were encouraged by her parents and she developed an early fascination for space. Seeing men on the moon, driving a rover, Payette thought to herself that she wanted to drive the rover.
She would say in 1998 quote:
“If you don’t work for what you want, and keep on dreaming, nothing happens and you’ll never know what life has in store for you.”
Payette attended College Regina Assumpta in Montreal, and then earned six scholarships to attend the United World College of the Atlantic in the United Kingdom. While attending the university, she would write in a yearbook entry quote:
“One day I’ll make an enormous pop right into orbit around the Earth and contemplate the world.”
In 1982, Payette received a scholarship to attend McGill University. She would graduate with a bachelor of electrical engineering in 1986. Four years later, she earned a master of applied science in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Toronto.
With her degrees, Payette began focusing on computer research activities such as automatic speech recognition and applying interactive technologies in space.
From 1986 to 1988, she worked for IBM Canada, followed by two years at the University of Toronto as a research assistant.
In 1991, Payette started work in Switzerland for IBM, and returned home to Canada the following year to work for Bell-Northern Research.
In June 1992, Payette was selected as one of four astronauts by the Canadian Space Agency. She was selected out of a group of 5,330 applicants, but her road to space would still take a few years. The decision to apply was something that Payette had thought about for some time. She would say in 1999 quote:
“I was very happy in my work but I thought I have to apply.”
She would add in another interview quote:
“Go into science, it is fun, it is rewarding, it is a great career and it is out there for anybody, girls and boys.”
Over the next few years, she worked on the Mobile Service System for the International Space Station, and founded the Human Computer Interaction Group. She also assisted the International Research Studies Group on speech recognition systems for NATO.
From 1995 to 1998, Payette sat on the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
Throughout those years, she also prepared for space travel. This included learning Russian and taking part in 120 flight hours in reduced gravity. With learning Russian, Payette could speak English, French, Russian, Spanish, German and Italian.
In February 1996, she qualified as a military jet captain at CFB Moose Jaw, logging more than 1,300 flight hours. Her commandant Major Rob Thorneycroft, stated that Payette had difficulty at first due to being unfamiliar with flying a plane. He would add quote:
“I would imagine that everything she’d done up to that point in her life was superior. And now she gets into an airplane and things come to her on an average to slightly above average level, which in her own mind may not have been as good as she would have liked.”
In April of that same year, she completed deep-water scuba training in a pressurized hard suit in Vancouver. The training process was rigorous and many asked Payette about the dangers of space travel, but she put it out of her mind, She told Macleans in 1998 quote:
“We know the risks, we always train for failure. But that is not what we think about. Measuring up to what is expected of me is more of a concern, it keeps me on my toes.”
Her initial astronaut training began at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in August 1996.
In April 1998, Payette was a NASA mission specialist and it was announced later that year that she would be going into space the following year.
Daniel Goldin, NASA administrator, would say of Payette quote:
“There isn’t an astronaut that flies, American or international, that I don’t get to know. I want to make sure they have the right stuff. And Payette has it. She has incredible intelligence. She has a quickness about her. She can think and reason under pressure.”
Payette would say that when she got the news she was finally going into space, she had to sit down as she couldn’t believe the news.
On May 27, 1999, Payette was aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery as it blasted into space and docked at the International Space Station.
Prior to leaving, Payette said quote:
“I hope to do my job as best as possible. That’s the only thing that really preoccupies me.”
Many news outlets would comment on Payette’s looks, stating that it would help people become interested in space travel. Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut, would say quote:
“If people are interested in Julie, we hope they’ll get interested in the Canadian Space Agency and the International Space Station. She’s a star but you have to remember she’s done serious work which will enable Canada to use the space station.”
During her 10-day mission in space, Payette became the first Canadian to board the International Space Station and to take part in an assembly mission. She was the eighth Canadian and second Canadian woman in space.
During her time in space, she would operate the Canadarm, supervised two space walks and tested out the Space Vision System.
Payette would say quote:
“I had to pinch myself. Isn’t it amazing and beautiful and vast, and here I am with it all spread out for me.”
One of the most amazing experiences of being in space was seeing the size of Canada, which took nine minutes to traverse from Halifax to Vancouver while in space. She said in 2004 quote:
“You realize how vast the country is, how rich in resources it is, water and forests, because that is all you see, and how much room there is for a lot of people. No wonder Canada is such a great land to welcome people from other places, because we’ve got room.”
She would return to Earth on June 6, 1999, having completed 153 orbits of the Earth, covering six million kilometres.
She would state when she arrived back on Earth quote:
“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you will always long to return.”
As soon as she landed, Payette said she was already thinking of going into space again and hoped she would be selected for a second mission.
“It was a fantastic adventure from beginning to end.”
Macleans would write of Payette around this time, stating quote:
“Much about Payette seems almost too good to be true. Her fierce ambition, her multiple talents as engineer, pianist, linguist and athlete. Even her good looks and relentless optimism. Her flight last May aboard the space shuttle Discovery made her a Canadian hero and a superstar in her native Quebec.”
As soon as she was back in Canada, she was taking part in photo-ops with politicians and she would make her first public appearance in Canada at Canada Day on Parliament Hill.
Payette would say of how becoming an astronaut changed her life, stating that everyone wanted a piece of you but that it was a fantasy job so you couldn’t complain.
From 2000 to 2007, Payette served as the chief astronaut of the Canadian Space Agency. As part of her duties, she worked as a capsule communicator at Mission Control in Houston, and supervised communications between ground controllers and astronauts.
On July 15, 2009, Payette returned to space, this time on a 16-day space mission onboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Payette said before take-off quote:
“Of course, I’ve been ready for a month now. We’re really looking forward to go and execute the mission. That is what we’re here for. I can tell you there is nothing routine standing next to a spacecraft, or strapped inside a spacecraft. It is quite awesome.”
On this mission, she had the role of flight engineer and mission specialist. With the seven-person crew, Payette constructed the Kibo Japanese Experiment Module. Several scientific experiments were conducted including investigating the effects of blood pressure, and the effects of fainting in space. During five space walks by her fellow astronauts, she operated the Canadarm, Canadarm 2 and the Japanese arm on Kobo. For the mission, Payette brought on board the space station a Montreal Canadiens sweater signed by Maurice Richard. She stated she brought The Rocket into the rocket to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens.
While on the mission, Payette met Robert Thirsk, another Canadian astronaut who had arrived at the space station in May 2009 on a long-duration mission. This was the first time two Canadians met in space.
On July 31, 2009, Payette returned to Earth. During her space career, she logged 611 hours in space, covering 16 million kilometres.
During the 2010 Winter Olympic Games opening ceremonies in Vancouver, Payette was one of the individuals to carry the flag into the games.
In 2011, Payette accepted a fellowship as a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars.
In 2013, she retired from the Canadian Space Agency.
From her retirement until 2016, she was the chief operating officer of the Montreal Science Centre, and a board member of the National Bank of Canada. At the science centre, several employees came forward stating she was verbally abusive and created a hostile working environment.
In April 2016, she joined the board of the Canadian Olympic Committee, but would leave the position in 2017 after two internal investigations looked at her treatment of staff.
On July 13, 2017 Payette was announced as the new Governor General for Canada. She would state of the appointment quote:
“This is a very great honour for me and for my family, for my friends and my colleagues.”
Media was primarily in favour of the appointment. The Ottawa Citizen would write quote:
“The appointment of Julie Payette is brilliant. She is confident, clever, bicultural and an icon, much-lauded at home and abroad. As an astronaut and engineer she understands science, as a female astronaut, she understands desire. She has lived in many places. She can communicate in six languages. At 53, she brings the right mix of energy and experience.”
At this point, the media began to look at her private life more closely. Doing so found that in 2011, she had an assault charge that was laid against her by her ex-husband Billie Flynn, and an incident when a pedestrian with poor eyesight stepped in front of her car and was killed.
The incident occurred in Maryland, but did not appear on any Maryland court records, having been expunged. Payette would say she was quote:
“immediately and completely cleared many years ago.”
She added that she wanted her privacy respected.
The main interest was in her divorce proceedings, which ended in June 2017.
Trudeau would state quote:
“The conversations I had with Madame Payette centered around the extraordinary service, her vision of the country, her vision of the role that she would fulfill as Governor General, and demonstrated to me her extraordinary strength in being one of our Governor Generals. The vetting process is deep and extensive and raised absolutely no issues that would prevent her from being Governor General.”
In order to protect her family’s privacy, she appealed to have her divorce files removed from the public record in August. This was legally challenged by the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, CBC, CTV and Postmedia.
Payette would say quote:
“Very few families are immune from difficult moments in life, mine included. I have worked hard to put these difficult events behind me and move on and move on with the best interest of my son in mind.”
Payette would withdraw her appeal on Aug. 21, 2017, stating she did so for reasons of transparency and to leave no doubt. She said quote:
“I have decided to voluntarily drop this appeal and release the divorce files.”
When the files were revealed, it was found that the divorce proceedings between Flynn and Payette were quite civil.
On Sept. 20, Payette met with Queen Elizabeth II.
On Oct. 2, 2017, she was officially sworn in as Canada’s Governor General. She stated in her speech quote:
“Anyone can accomplish anything and rise to the challenge as long as they are willing to work with others, to let go of the personal agenda, to reach a higher goal and to do what is right for the common good. This is exactly what I hope my mandate as the Governor General will reflect.”
She would state that her main issues as Governor General would be migration, poverty and climate change.
Andrew Cohen wrote of her speech for the National Post stating quote:
“Julie Payette did something extraordinary after taking the oath as Governor General of Canada this week. She stood, rather than sat, in the well of the Senate and she spoke, rather than read, her remarks. Without text or teleprompter, she just talked. It was a performance. Her words were picked, cut and arranged like an autumn bouquet. To prompt herself, she wrote key words on her fingers like a Jesuit.”
In her first few months as Governor General, Payette was criticized by some for her comments on individuals who believed in creationism and those who did not believe in climate change.
Through her time as Governor General, she argued for a stronger acceptance of science, stating that too many people believed taking a sugar pill will cure cancer.
Payette stated she was growing into her role. She said quote:
“I learned that you have to be careful about how you say thing, but not what you say. I made a speech as I had as an astronaut and I am not an astronaut any longer, I’m Governor General. I represent all Canadians. I’ve learned those lessons.”
Various news outlets criticized her work ethic stating that in her first year, she had not visited several provinces and had not devoted enough time to being Governor General.
The media also raised concerns over spending, highlighting a $140,000 bill for the studying and designing of a private staircase that was never built, and $117,500 for a gate and series of doors to keep people out her of office.
Around the summer of 2020, reports began to surface from current and former staff who made allegations that Payette and her secretary were verbally abusive. Several members of the communications team that worked with Payette had quit or taken leaves of absence. One former employee stated that she would scream and humiliate staff in front of others. Another staff member said quote:
“Right from the beginning, I was appalled at what was going on. The atmosphere, the vibe, the stress, the constant barrage, it was just, it was unbearable.”
A review was conducted in the autumn of 2020. On Jan. 21, 2021, a report was released that was characterized as scathing. Later that same day, Payette resigned as the Governor General of Canada. A source would state that Trudeau had requested her resignation, something that had never happened in Canadian history before. She became the second Governor General to resign from office after Romeo LeBlanc, who resigned for health reasons. She was the first to resign as the result of a scandal and the first to leave a vacancy upon resignation.
A statement from Payette would read quote:
“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 of 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. It is with sureness and humility, but also with pride over what was accomplished during my tenure as Governor General, and in my service to the country for the past 28 years, that I have submitted my resignation.”
Other than Charles Monck, who served for one year and 136 days as Governor General from 1867 to 1868, Payette has had the shortest term as Governor General since 1867. It should be noted that Monck had served as the Governor General of the Province of Canada from 1861 to 1867.
Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of Canada, was sworn in as administrator for the office on Jan. 23, 2021.
A great deal of criticism fell on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not vetting Payette properly. It was found that his office did not check with her past employers to find her management style and temperament.
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Governor General of Canada, Global News, CBC, Wikipedia, Edmonton Journal, Windsor Star, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Province,
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