OTTAWA — Gov. Gen. Julie Payette has done one-third fewer public events in her first year in office than her predecessor David Johnston, a Star analysis suggests.
As Payette prepares to mark her one-year anniversary as the Queen’s representative in Canada, Rideau Hall has been facing questions about her schedule and workload.
The Star analysis supports the anecdotal sense in the nation’s capital that Payette has opted for a lower profile and a less jam-packed schedule than the previous office holder set in his first year in office.
Payette has done some 195 public events since being named as Gov. Gen. on Oct. 2, 2017. That compares to 296 for Johnston over the same period after he took office in October 2010.
The online records for Michaëlle Jean, who served as Gov. Gen. between 2005 and 2010 show she did some 265 public events in her first year though differences in how her appearances are posted makes direct comparisons difficult.
Rideau Hall spokesperson Marie-Ève Létourneau insisted that the level of activity by Payette over the past 12 months is “quite similar” to her predecessors.
“All governors general bring something unique to the role and the institution. They all serve with a very high level of commitment and dedication, responding to the demanding nature of the position,” Létourneau told the Star in an email Friday. Rideau Hall would not say whether Payette herself would respond to questions about her schedule.
Following her installation last October, Payette did territorial and provincial visits and “continued the busy program of events planned by the team, adding several additional activities,” she said.
Létourneau was unable to provide her own numbers around Payette’s activities. But she said the current Rideau Hall website — due to be phased out in the coming days — “may not reflect” the Gov. Gen.’s “extremely busy” calendar.
Payette — a 53-year-old Montreal native — arrived in the office last October with high expectations and an impressive resume, notably as Canada’s second female astronaut with two space flights under her belt.
But it wasn’t long after she was installed as Gov. Gen. on Oct. 2, 2017 that Payette was sending signals that she was not happy with the expected workload and schedule, which can run to hundreds of events a year as the viceregal representative is called to celebrate achievements in the arts, honour community heroes and support charities.
There is also work behind the scenes, including private sessions with the prime minister, that Rideau Hall typically does not discuss.
But the public role is a vital one too — and most visible.
“It’s outside of the constitutional parts so let’s be clear it doesn’t affect her core functions,” said Philippe Lagassé, associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University with an expertise in the Westminster system.
“Even though she is doing her head of state functions, there’s a lot of expectations around head of nation as it were, going out there and representing Canadians to themselves, being seen as a uniting figure,” he said.
He noted that the post — steeped in protocol and tradition — carries a heavy workload of activities such as Order of Canada investitures and awarding military and civilian honours even before the incoming Gov. Gen. has decided their own priorities for the office.
The post also touches on diplomacy as ambassadors and high commissioners present their letters of credence to the Gov. Gen. before they assume their post. They are also called to represent Canada on the world stage, such as Payette’s trip to Thailand last October to attend the royal cremation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Johnston’s attendance at the 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in London.
“The question is whether this is something that can be pared down for a Gov. Gen. who may be less inclined to take on this kind of schedule,” Lagassé said.
He wonders if Payette came into the job fully aware about the demands. “I think that is the underlying issue here,” he said.
“If she was, is she allowed to push back? In this day and age, when we talk about lifework balance, maybe she is. That’s a conversation we have to have. If you want to get people into this office, some of them may not be willing to accept the Johnston level of commitment,” he said.
Létourneau said that planning the Gov. Gen.’s program hinges on factors such as the “context of each year, to the business of government and the family situation of the Gov. Gen..” Payette has a teenage son.
“The first year of every mandate is a period of learning, adjustment and adaptation from both the Gov. Gen. and Rideau Hall staff,” she said.
For the analysis, the Star reviewed the public events schedules listed on the Rideau Hall website. The itineraries include events in Ottawa as well as out-of-town trips. The tally is not exact. That’s because detailed itineraries are not shown for some trips, such as Johnston’s 2011 trip to Kuwait and Qatar or a full listing of Payette’s visit to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.
It reveals that some activities that had become part of the Gov. Gen.’s annual routine in the past have fallen off the schedule under Payette, who earns close to $300,000 a year. Moreover, a number of organizations with which previous governors general have worked appear to have been dropped by Payette.
For example, each spring, the Gov. Gen. has accepted a bouquet of daffodils from cancer patients to highlight Canadian Cancer Society’s Daffodil Month. But not this year, it appears.
In his first year, Johnston presided over three ceremonies to present Duke of Edinburgh gold awards to recognize achievements by young people. Payette has done none. That’s because she has not yet decided whether to serve as honorary patron of the organization that handles the awards, as governors general have done dating back to 1963.
Award organizers wrote Rideau Hall a year ago to make the request. “We’re hopeful and we understand that it’s taken time. For a number reasons she is delaying requests at the moment,” said Victoria Selano, director of fundraising and development for The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award — Canada. Other organizations have not heard if Payette will act as their patron.
The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada was another organization that fell off the list this year. Every two years, it helps organize the Gov. Gen.’s Medals in Architecture, which have been presented at Rideau Hall since 2002, with the exception of 2006, when the ceremony was held in Montreal.
But when the organization went to the Gov. Gen.’s office to request that Payette present the medals at a Rideau Hall ceremony, it was turned away. “This year the email response was simply, ‘sorry, we’re not able to accommodate you this year,’ ” said Michael Cox, a Brandon, Manitoba architect who serves as the institute’s president.
In the end, the ceremony was held in Winnipeg, hosted by Janice Filmon, the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba. Payette did send a congratulatory message. “We had a glorious time … it was a wonderful event,” Cox said.
The Winnipeg Free Press noted this week that Payette will not have visited Manitoba in her first year in office, a break with the practice of some past governors general to visit all provinces and territories in their first 12 months. Payette won’t have visited Saskatchewan or Yukon either.
But Létourneau said that Payette has “achieved, on time, all the tasks that the Gov. Gen. must execute.”
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier