Canada has experienced a run of unfortunate female governors general (GG) over the past few years. It would be hard to find three more self-absorbed women than former Governors General Adrienne Clarkson (1999-2005), Michaëlle Jean (2005-2010), and Julie Payette (2017-2021). Each of these women has been a disappointment, each in her own, peculiar way.
The run of bad choices in GG began with the appointment of Adrienne Clarkson. She has spent her entire career living off the Canadian taxpayer as a journalist for the CBC, as Chairman of the Board for the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now called the Canadian Museum of History), and then as GG. Her six-year tenure in that office was made notable for her extravagance. The cost of maintaining her and her husband, John Ralston Saul, nearly doubled from nearly $11 million annually to $19 million annually. Ms. Clarkson and her husband had the notion that they were “intellectuals” and were thereby bestowing on the Canadian public the gift of themselves with their intellect and enormous grasp of cultural matters.
Clarkson’s problem seems to have been that she was confused as to who was actually the queen. She seemed to regard herself as the queen, not that other person living in London.
The next one up for appointment was Michaëlle Jean, who was, at the time of her appointment, a citizen of France, as was her husband. Both had supported Quebec’s separation from Canada. She was a CBC journalist residing in Montreal.
One of her drawbacks (apart from her love of luxury) was that she merely ticked off all the politically correct positions whenever she enlightened Canadians with a speech. She was not blessed with either discernment or independent thought, and during her time as GG, she backed every politically correct position available. She did frequently talk about the suffering women experienced from discrimination, to which problems, of course, she believed that feminist policies were the answer. She enjoyed the attention, the luxury, the clothes, and the travel. The role of GG, in her view, was all about her. The history, purpose, and responsibilities of the GG appeared to sit lightly on her shoulders.
Payette’s time as GG was marked by the huge turnover of a very unhappy staff. This led to the Privy Council Office ordering a workplace review of her behaviour as GG. This independent review, released on January 21, 2021, described the work environment as untenable, with screaming, demeaning comments, public humiliation, and, according to a report by the CBC on January 26, 2021, unwanted physical contact by Ms. Payette with her hapless staff.
Ms. Payette’s problem appears to be that she doesn’t much like people. She refused to live in Rideau Hall, even though she had cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars for renovations to make privacy upgrades. This included a $141,000 architect’s plan for a private staircase in Rideau Hall that was never built. Payette, however, never resided in Rideau Hall even after the renovations were completed. She preferred to reside in a nearby mansion on the grounds, which she believed would give her more privacy.
Ms. Payette did not seem to have any grasp of her responsibilities as GG and how they were to be carried out. She gave the impression that she believed she ennobled the office of GG rather than the other way around.
Payette was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in October 2017. Typically, looking only to appearances, Trudeau was dazzled that Payette was an astronaut, engineer, female, and French-speaking.
In his eagerness to appoint Payette, Trudeau didn’t bother checking into her background, which would have exposed a number of red flags about her difficulty working with people when she was employed at the Montreal Science Centre and the Canadian Olympic Committee.
A Positive Role Model for Female Governors General
It is not as though these three female GGs didn’t have an excellent role model to follow in predecessor, Jeanne Sauvé, who was GG from 1983 to 1990. Ms. Sauvé was the first female Speaker of the House of Commons and first female GG. Ms. Sauvé was dignified, elegant, charming, and a person who could mingle with ordinary Canadians – especially children – while maintaining a sense of the dignity of the office. She also had the important characteristic of genuinely caring about people.
Generous Pensions and Expense Accounts for Governors General
The GGs are costing the taxpayer millions of dollars, even after leaving office, even after they die, as payments are authorized to cover expenses for a further six months.
A retired GG is entitled to a $150,000 annual pension, plus an additional $206,000 for “expenses” which would be paid annually for life. This latter expense fund was allotted by the cabinet in 1979, which, according to cabinet minutes, was agreed to on the basis that retired GGs incurred responsibilities as a result of their having held the office. This might well be the case for a year of two after they retire, but should not be for the rest of their lives, as presently occurs.
This controversial, additional financial contribution to retired GGs became public in 2018 when it was revealed that Clarkson had received $1.4 million dollars from this account since her retirement 13 years previously. There is no requirement that GGs itemize or document their expenses.
The exposure of this GG fund for life was the catalyst for a review that was carried out in 2019. The report was released in October 2019. It noted the lack of transparency and accountability and recommended that GGs provide itemized expense claims to be reported annually. The report also recommended that consideration be given to ending the expense account after a defined number of years, rather than the current for-life regime.
The Trudeau government has not acted on this report.