Governor General Julie Payette Canada Rideau Hall

Governor General Julie Payette (Photo by Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall, OSGG)

When newly installed Governor General Julie Payette stood up to speak at the Canadian Science Policy Convention on Nov. 1, the theme of her speech—Evening of Celebration and Inspiration: Celebrating 150 Years of Canadian Science—seemed innocuously suitable for a person who must appear to be elevated above nasty controversies or the grubby, hard-contact world of politics.

It wasn’t.

In her remarks, Payette appeared to mock religious and cultural beliefs as well as talk dismissively about anyone who has ever peeked at a horoscope. Her disparaging tone was a sharp contrast from the more carefully-chosen words of other vice-regal appointees when they talk of serious issues.

It started out in a rousing defence of the science behind climate change. Given there is little debate in Canada about the causes of environmental degradation, the Governor General, an engineer and former astronaut, was on firm footing when she attacked those around the world who doubt to the science of climate change. “Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period?” she said.

And in an era of misinformation, she called for everyone to be on guard: “Democracy and society have always gained from learned debate but we have to remain vigilant and we cannot let ourselves fall into complacency and we must be vocal, all the time, everywhere, every single one of us, so we can deconstruct misinformation and don’t end up in an echo chamber just listening to what we want to hear.” She also attacked junk science, including those who think “taking a sugar pill will cure cancer if you will it good enough.”

Political figures, including Catherine McKenna, federal minister of the environment and climate change, applauded Payette’s speech.

Her defence of science would have passed unnoticed by most, had she stayed on that topic. She didn’t.

THE GOVERNOR GENERAL ON THE ATTACK

She went after people who hold non-scientific beliefs, including those who believe that “every single one of the people here’s personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations.”

Payette also seemed to make fun of those who hold religious and cultural beliefs regarding the origins of the universe and creation. “We are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention,” she said, “or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.”

The Governor General’s comment implied she didn’t understand that reading horoscopes, or believing that there was divine intervention in the creation of the universe doesn’t negate also believing in science, including evolution. In fact, many Canadians comfortably hold a multitude of cultural and religious beliefs at the same time as having absolute faith in scientific methods and discoveries.

It’s especially jarring given the deeply-held creation myths of the Indigenous peoples of Canada. As one person noted, “Wonder if the GG would laugh at the idea of a spirit bear.”

UPROAR OVER THE GOVERNOR GENERAL’S COMMENTS

When the Canadian Press published excerpts of her speech, social media erupted. “The GG has every right to defend science and criticize climate change deniers. But ‘don’t mock people’ is a pretty good rule for viceregals,” Philippe Lagassé, an expert on the Crown and the Westminster system at Carleton University, pointed out on Twitter from a Crown conference in New Zealand. Tyler Dawson, deputy editorial page editor of the Ottawa Citizen, echoed with, “ ‘Don’t ridicule people’ if you’re the Queen’s representative is…shockingly controversial.”

It isn’t that vice-regal office holders have to be completely neutral and boring. They can, and have, tackled issues that could be seen as political in nature. It’s the way they do it that matters. In 2015, former governor general David Johnston called the lack of equality in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver “unacceptable.” No scandal.

As Lagassé pointed out, “Yes being outspoken is fine. But the way she did it will have the opposite effect of what she intended to do.” He references the future king of Canada, who has openly and passionately campaigned for sensitive, sometimes controversial causes ranging from organic farming to helping unemployed youth. “Prince Charles is a good example here. Man’s got opinions. States them in a way that plea rather than poke.”

The speech came within a month of Governor General Julie Payette taking the oath of allegiance. This stumble may be momentary blip as she settled into her role as the Queen’s representative. One thing is sure: everyone will be watching, and listening, for what she says next.