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'Canada deserves stability': Julie Payette resigns as Governor General, apologizes

OTTAWA — Julie Payette resigned Thursday as Canada's governor general, saying that to protect the integrity of her office and for the good of the country it was time for her to go.

OTTAWA — Julie Payette resigned Thursday as Canada's governor general, saying that to protect the integrity of her office and for the good of the country it was time for her to go. 

Payette joins a very short list of governors general who have left the post early and is the first to do so mired in controversy. Her decision to leave will have both political and practical consequences for the minority Liberal government.

Payette, 57, handed in her resignation ahead of the imminent release of results of an independent investigation into allegations of a toxic workplace at Rideau Hall, over which she has presided since being appointed in 2017. 

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc presides over the Privy Council Office, which requested the investigation. He said the government received the report late last week.

"The conclusions were compelling and they were stark," LeBlanc said in an interview.

"It was obviously an unacceptable workplace. Public servants who work for the government of Canada have the right to a secure, safe and healthy workplace and we are adamant ... that that standard be upheld at every institution of the government of Canada."

He said the report "painted a picture that was not consistent" with that standard.

LeBlanc said he talked to Payette about the report on Tuesday and she then talked to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday evening, at which time "she indicated that it was her intention to offer her resignation," which was received Thursday afternoon.

While he wasn't part of Trudeau's conversation with Payette, LeBlanc said he didn't think the prime minister asked for her resignation or threatened to fire her if she didn't resign voluntarily.

"I think she had arrived at the conclusion that it would be best for the institution and the country that she terminate her mandate."

The secretary to the governor general, Assunta Di Lorenzo, also resigned Thursday from her senior post.

In her statement, Payette apologized for tensions at Rideau Hall and, while she welcomed the investigation, she also suggested she disagreed with the characterizations of her leadership.

"We all experience things differently, but we should always strive to do better, and be attentive to one another’s perceptions," she said, noting that there were no formal complaints or grievances filed by employees during her tenure.

"I am a strong believer in the principles of natural justice, due process and the rule of law, and that these principles apply to all equally. Notwithstanding, in respect for the integrity of my viceregal office and for the good of our country and of our democratic institutions, I have come to the conclusion that a new governor general should be appointed," she continued. 

"Canadians deserve stability in these uncertain times."

She also suggested personal reasons were part of her decision, citing her father's declining health. 

"So 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," she wrote.

Trudeau acknowledged in a terse statement he'd received her resignation.

“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," he said.

"Today’s announcement provides an opportunity for new leadership at Rideau Hall to address the workplace concerns raised by employees during the review." 

Payette, a former astronaut, was appointed Canada's 29th governor general in 2017.

Her appointment followed the nearly seven-year term of noted academic David Johnston.

While she wasn't the first female governor general, Trudeau's decision to install a woman with a long history in the sciences was seen as a reflection of the Liberals' commitment to encourage more women to be active in those areas. 

But Trudeau's decision was questioned nearly from the start, and again on Thursday.

To select Payette, Trudeau abandoned a formal panel set up by the previous Conservative government to make viceregal appointments, and instead moved the decision into his office. 

Shortly after she took the job, it emerged that Payette had been charged with second-degree assault while living in Maryland in 2011. 

She called the charge unfounded and it has since been expunged. 

But as details of that emerged, so did revelations that she was involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident that same year. The case was closed without charges after a police investigation. 

Both incidents raised immediate questions about how thoroughly she had been vetted for the job and accusations she wasn't the right fit for it have dogged her ever since.

She did not move into the official residence of Rideau Hall, citing privacy concerns linked to renovations, some of which she had requested herself and whose price tag would eventually become a political problem for the Liberals. 

Instead, Payette based herself in her home province of Quebec, where she has spent a great deal of time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last summer, the CBC reported, citing anonymous sources, that Payette had yelled at, belittled and publicly humiliated employees, reducing some to tears or prompting them to quit.

In turn, the Privy Council Office — the civil servants who support Trudeau's work — hired Ottawa-based Quintet Consulting Corp. to investigate.

At the time, Trudeau expressed his confidence in Payette's abilities, dismissing the idea of replacing her.

During a radio interview in September he said she was excellent. 

"I think on top of the COVID crisis, nobody's looking at any constitutional crises," he said.

In the event a governor general can't carry out the job, is removed, or dies, the chief justice of the Supreme Court assumes the office's powers as long as necessary.

For now, that means Chief Justice Richard Wagner will grant royal assent to bills and handle other administrative matters.

"A recommendation on a replacement will be provided to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and announced in due course, ” Trudeau said.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said that replacement ought to be considered carefully.

"Considering the problems with his last appointment and the minority Parliament, the prime minister should consult opposition parties and re-establish the viceregal appointments committee,” he said in a statement. 

While the Governor General is a largely symbolic position, it does have some constitutional importance, particularly during a minority government such as the one Canada has now.

In 2008, then prime minister Stephen Harper asked governor general Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament to avoid a non-confidence vote he was expected to lose — a decision that was controversial at the time but in keeping with constitutional tradition.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2021.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press