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Saturday, March 06, 2021

Explained: Who is Julie Payette, Canada’s Governor General who resigned over harassment allegations?

Her resignation came hours after senior officials received the results of an independent investigation into reports that suggested Payette had verbally abused and bullied members of her staff.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 30, 2021 10:59:33 am
Explained: Who is Julie Payette, Canada's Governor General who resigned over harassment allegations?Former astronaut Julie Payette (Right) and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take part in a news conference announcing Payette's appointment as Canada's next governor general, in the Senate foyer on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, July 13, 2017. (Reuters/File Photo)

Canada’s Governor General Julie Payette stepped down from her post Thursday, following allegations of severe workplace harassment. Her resignation came hours after senior officials received the results of an independent investigation into reports that suggested Payette had verbally abused and bullied members of her staff, Reuters reported.

Payette, who was selected by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the representative of the country’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, wrote a letter to the public apologising for the tensions that had arisen with staff during her tenure. “I have come to the conclusion that a new Governor General should be appointed. Canadians deserve stability in these uncertain times,” she wrote.

Who is Julie Payette?

Payette was sworn in as the 29th Governor General of Canada on October 2, 2017 after she was approved for a five-year term by Queen Elizabeth II and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. As representative of the head of state, Payette carried out a number of ceremonial duties, such as swearing in governments and formally signing legislation.

A few years into her term, she faced widespread criticism for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating Rideau House, the office of the Governor General.

Payette is also an astronaut and an engineer and has even previously served as the country’s chief astronaut. Before joining the Canadian Space Agency, she worked as a research scientist. In 1992, she became the first Canadian to board and serve on the International Space Station.

In 2013, she was appointed the chief operating officer of the Montreal Science Centre. Here too, some staff members later alleged Payette had often spoke to them harshly, sometimes even humiliating them and leaving them in tears.

A Montreal native, Payette holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from McGill University as well as a masters degree from the University of Toronto. She has also served as a board member for several prominent Canadian organisations, including the National Bank of Canada.

What were the allegations against Julie Payette?

In July last year, several former staffers of Rideau House told CBC News that Payette created a toxic environment at the workplace by constantly verbally harassing employees. At least five people resigned due to her behaviour during the pandemic alone.

“This has gone from being one of the most collegial and enjoyable work environments for many of the staff to being a house of horrors,” a government employee told CBC. “It’s bullying and harassment at its worst.” Payette allegedly yelled, belittled and sometimes even publicly humiliated her staffers. She was also known to regularly throw tantrums in the office.

Payette’s secretary Assunta Di Lorenzo was also accused of harassing staffers, and calling some of them “lazy” and “incompetent”. According to CBC News, Lorenzo will also be resigning along with Payette.

How did the Canadian government respond to the harassment allegations?

Following the allegations of harassment and bullying from her staffers last year, the government launched a third-party investigation to probe the claims against Payette. The firm investigating the allegations spoke to dozens of current and former government employees who have worked with her, the Guardian reported.

“Harassment has no place in any professional workplace,” a representative of the Privy Council Office, which manages Canada’s federal bureaucracy, said at the time. “It is a public service priority to advance efforts to more effectively prevent and resolve issues of harassment.”

Senior officials received the final investigation report last week, which offered some “disturbing” and “worrisome” deductions, CBC News reported. On Thursday, Payette became the first serving Governor General to step down from the post amid a scandal, Reuters reported.

A few months after the allegations first surfaced, Trudeau publicly defended Payette and dismissed rumours that he was going to ask her to resign from her role. “We have an excellent governor general right now and I think, on top of the Covid crisis, nobody’s looking at any constitutional crises,” he said. “We have put in place a process to review some of the working conditions at Rideau Hall, but that’s not something that we’re contemplating right now, going further than that.”

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So, what next?

While Trudeau selects the next Governor General, Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner will fill the post in the interim period. The Prime Minister said he would submit recommendations for Payette’s replacement to the Queen “in due course”, BBC reported.

Soon after Payette announced her resignation, Trudeau faced criticism for appointing her to the role in the first place. Some leaders from within Trudeau’s Liberal Party have accused him of selecting Payette for the role without determining whether she was really appropriate for the job.

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