OTTAWA — The recent resignations of former governor general Julie Payette and former senator Lynn Beyak, and the circumstances under which they stepped down, have renewed a discussion about morality and pension eligibility.
If precedents set by former senators, who have resigned from their roles in disgrace, are any kind of indication: the two are not mutually exclusive.
Payette, the former chief astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency, resigned as the Queen’s representative over a damning workplace harassment assessment.
Ninety-two current and former Rideau Hall employees were interviewed in an independent review, and mostly painted details of a “toxic” work environment that included hostile and humiliating interactions with Payette. The nature of her resignation was unprecedented.
Roméo LeBlanc was the last governor general to resign the viceregal role, albeit under different circumstances. He stepped down from the position in 1999 citing health reasons.
Senators are another story. Because of a loophole, there have been plenty of senators who have resigned in disgrace and have been able to keep their pensions.
This is because senators lose their pension eligibility if they are convicted of an indictable offence and expelled from the Senate. This can be circumvented by resigning before they face an expulsion vote from their colleagues.
While no senator has ever been expelled, it almost happened in 2017 when former senator Don Meredith resigned from the upper chamber following the revelation he had a sexual relationship with a teenage girl while in office.
Meredith was also facing allegations of workplace harassment and sexual abuse at the time.
Years earlier, former senator Raymond Lavigne resigned his role in the upper chamber after being convicted of fraud and breach of trust in 2011. That act allowed the former Liberal MP to save his pension.
Former Liberal senator Mac Harb did the same thing in 2013 when he risked losing his pension over a possible criminal conviction in relation to Senate spending violations.
Harb’s charges would later be dropped.
Why are we talking about this?
Some people, including Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, have argued due to the circumstances surrounding Payette’s resignation, she should not be entitled to the lifetime annuity, estimated to be around $150,000.
Watch: Opposition leaders press for details on Payette’s resignation. Story continues below video.
“She resigned her role,” O’Toole told reporters Monday. “She should not be able to access the normal courtesies provided to governors generals.”
Appointed in 2017, Payette served as governor general for 40 months.
On top of receiving an annuity for the rest of their lives, governors general are privy to a program that allows them to set up an office and bill related administrative expenses to Canadians.
Since leaving Rideau Hall in 2005, former governor general Adrienne Clarkson has found herself in hot water after racking up at least $1.1 million in office expenses by October 2018.
Dominic LeBlanc, president of the Queen’s Privy Council and the son of a former governor general, told The West Block in an interview that in order for Payette’s pension to be stripped, Parliament would have to spend time drafting and debating new legislation to amend the Governor General’s Act.
He did, however, leave the door open to a potential Treasury Board process to review Payette’s access to an annual expense account, another post-employment perk of being governor general.
“We think Canadians expect a high degree of transparency and rigor with respect to any of these benefits,” LeBlanc told host Mercedes Stephenson.
What about Beyak?
Beyak positioned herself as a proud contrarian in the last chapter of her Senate legacy by making herself an advocate for the “good deeds” that resulted from the residential school system, which has been described as a vehicle that wielded “cultural genocide” upon generations of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit families.
Beyak announced her resignation Monday by stating she was keeping a promise made to Stephen Harper, the former Conservative prime minister who appointed her in 2013, to stick to an eight-year term limit in the spirit of Senate reform.
Despite the controversy that has followed since her initial comments in her 2017 speech, the ejection from Conservative caucus over her refusal to remove a derogatory letter from her taxpayer-funded website, the unsuccessful cultural training sessions she attended, and the two times her Senate colleagues suspended her without pay, Beyak remained unrepentant.
“Some have criticized me for stating that the good, as well as the bad, of residential schools should be recognized. I stand by that statement,” the Ontario senator said in a press release announcing her immediate departure from the upper chamber.
“Others have criticized me for stating that the Truth and Reconciliation Report was not as balanced as it should be. I stand by that statement as well.”
There’s another perk bestowed to senators after they retire: their title.
According to the table of titles for use in Canada, a senator is allowed to be styled as “Honourable” for the rest of their life.
There was a push in 2019 by the Senate’s ethic’s committee to strip Don Meredith of the title. It’s a rule senators can have potential influence in changing though it’s never been done before.
“Since the beginning of Confederation this chamber has never made a recommendation or invited the prime minister to advise the governor general to remove the title of ‘honourable’ of any senator,” said Sen. Josée Verner in a December 2019 speech.
Under the same table of titles, the governor general is allowed to be styled as “Right Honourable” for life after they leave Rideau Hall.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller tried to hold his tongue Wednesday when asked if he believed Beyak should receive her pension considering a third push by her colleague to suspend her right before she resigned.
“There’s a number of cameras in front of me so I’ll stay polite,” Miller said. He called Beyak’s remarks “unacceptable” and expressed astonishment that she had shown no remorse.
“Let the Senate deal with her pension,” he said. “Seriously.”
But the question of whether a former parliamentarian or viceregal can be stripped of pensions they’re entitled to under federal law could be something the government might need to deal with, like it or not.