07/13/2017 17:54 EDT | Updated 07/13/2017 18:04 EDT

Julie Payette, Canada's Next Governor General, Evades Question On Supporting Monarchy

She will serve as the Queen's representative in Canada.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Former astronaut Julie Payette takes part in a news conference announcing her appointment as Canada's next governor general in the Senate foyer on Parliament Hill on July 13, 2017.

OTTAWA — Canada's next Governor General sidestepped a question Thursday on whether she supports the monarchy.

Julie Payette — who will serve as the the Queen's representative in Canada — was asked whether she believes it remains relevant for the country to be headed by a monarch.

"I don't think it is appropriate for me to respond to this question at this moment," she responded in French. "[In] this position, which incredible predecessors have occupied, and I will do my best to advance subjects and directions and to also listen, because I believe it is very important to listen to what people have to say in our communities and to do the best I can with the parameters that are offered to us now."

Payette, a Quebecer, is the second Canadian woman to have flown in space. After two tours in space, she also worked at NASA's Mission Control Center and served as chief astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency.

Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Queen had approved the appointment of Payette to serve as Canada's 29th Governor General.

Tom Freda, a director with the group Citizens for a Canadian Republic, said he hopes Payette's comments will spur a discussion about the need to have a head of state who lives in Canada and is a citizen of this country.

"She could have said that she was a proud of the connection to the monarchy. She chose not to. I think that's fairly strong evidence that perhaps she has, outside of monarchist circles, the universal view that the Governor General is our de facto head of state and that the connection to the monarchy is a colonial holdover," Freda said.

Canadians love the Queen, poll suggests

An Ipsos/Global News poll from last December suggest Canadians hold deep affection for the Queen, but a majority — 53 per cent — are ready to cut ties with the monarchy after she dies. Support for dumping the Crown is strongest in Quebec, where 73 per cent of respondents favoured the move, and among millennials, with 58 per cent wanting a republic.

The monarchy holds real, not just symbolic, power — the Queen has the ability to appoint and dismiss the prime minister.

"If [Payette] does, in fact, say that she feels it is time that we remove our connection to the monarchy, she wouldn't be out of sync with other governors general in other Commonwealth countries," Freda told HuffPost.

In 2013, the Queen's then representative in Australia, governor general Quentin Bryce said that she hoped "one day, one young girl or boy may even grow up to be our nation's first head of state."

In 2004, New Zealand's then governor general Dame Catherine Tizard publicly stated that she supports a republic in principle and had discussed the matter with the Queen.

Andrew Milligan/Reuters
Queen Elizabeth II greets Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during an audience at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland on July 5, 2017.

"She has always said it is a decision for New Zealand to make, and 'whatever decision New Zealand makes, of course we would accept it'," Tizard recounted to The New Zealand Herald.

Robert Finch, the chairman of The Monarchist League of Canada, said not much should be read into Payette's comments.

"From a monarchist's perspective, of course, we would always want to hear loud and ringing endorsement of the Queen and of the monarchy as an institution, but I think it is appropriate for the Governor General and the viceregal to not engage in that conversation....

"If you were to ask the Queen herself, she would give a very similar, very vague answer that it is a matter for Canadians [to decide]. She wouldn't say, 'Of course, the monarchy is the best thing going.'"

Finch added that he hopes Payette doesn't share the majority opinion in Quebec that the monarchy should be abolished. A 2016 Angus Reid poll suggested that only 42 per cent of Quebecers support the Queen and that 67 per cent are firmly opposed to having her son, Prince Charles, becoming King of Canada.

Monarchist group not bothered

"One has to presume that if you accept the position of viceregal to represent the Queen, ... you support the institution that you are now representing," he told HuffPost. "I don't know how you could — you would have to do some deep soul searching, in my view if you accept a viceregal position and don't support the institution that it represents."

Freda, however, remains hopeful that Payette's carefully chosen words signal the tide is turning.

In 2010, New Zealand's Tizard said she believes the monarchy will be removed once the Queen dies. Freda believes Canada's elected representatives also need to plan for her death. "As the Queen's reign comes to a close, this is going to heat up and if our parliamentarians and our government are not attuned to Canadians' views on this ... this [could] descend into a constitutional problem."

Numerous public opinion surveys have found waning support for Charles as king.

Payette's comments will help spur the discussion, Freda said.

"These comments by our Governor General-designate do add a very interesting element to the debate, and we are going to pay attention very closely," he said.

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