Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wouldn’t say Friday if he regrets having named Julie Payette as Canada’s governor general after her extraordinary resignation from the viceregal post amid allegations of a toxic workplace at Rideau Hall.
At a press briefing outside his Ottawa residence, Trudeau told reporters in French that Payette brought “enormous positives” to the job with her emphasis on science and service, but said all Canadians deserve a “safe and healthy workplace.”
He said his government will consider making changes to the vetting process for high-level appointments in the wake of the controversy, but offered little by way of details.
Watch: Payette’s controversial tenure as governor general
Payette stepped down as the Queen’s representative in Canada Thursday, days after the government received a reportedly scathing report from an independent investigation into allegations of workplace harassment at Rideau Hall during her tenure.
The prime minister told reporters he spoke with Queen Elizabeth II by phone earlier that morning to inform her Chief Justice Richard Wagner would be fulfilling the governor general’s duties on a “temporary basis,” with a permanent replacement to be named in due time.
Despite leading a minority government that could fall at any time — a scenario that would put pressure on a governor general to decide whether to agree to an election or let Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole attempt to meet the confidence of the House of Commons — Trudeau said Canadians “need not be concerned about political or constitutional concerns.”
Trudeau ducked several opportunities to take some personal responsibility for having named Payette to the post in 2017, despite her having faced similar accusations of humiliating and bullying subordinates during stints at the Montreal Science Centre and the Canadian Olympic Committee.
The prime minister maintained Payette’s vetting for the role was “rigorous,” but said his government would “look at ways we can strengthen and improve the vetting process for high-level appointments” going forward.
CBC reporter Ashley Burke, who broke many stories last year about the former governor general’s tumultuous time at Rideau Hall, including allegations from its current and former employees that she belittled staff, told Trudeau it was “pretty easy” to learn Payette left two past workplaces amid controversy over her treatment of staff.
Burke asked why Trudeau would not commit to using the independent panel to select the next governor general. “We are looking right now at processes that can be strengthened as we move forward and we will have more to say on that as we make decisions,” he said.
The prime minister also dodged a question on whether or not he owes an apology to Rideau Hall workers who allegedly suffered in that workplace, or if he should offer a larger mea culpa to Canadians.
“As a government, we’ve demonstrated time and time again how important it is to create workplaces that are free and safe of harassment, and in which people can do their important jobs in safety and security,” he said.
That desire for workplace safety in the public sector is why he agreed to accept Payette’s resignation “given the concerns that were raised,” he said.
“Obviously, the work that has been done by people working at Rideau Hall over the past years has always been exceptional. They fulfil important duties for Canadians and as we saw, were sometimes in very difficult situations.”
In a media release Thursday after her resignation, Payette said she is a “strong believer in the principles of natural justice, due process and the rule of law,” and said those principles “apply to all” equally.
Payette noted no formal complaints or official grievances were filed against her and said she had encouraged employees to participate in the review. “We all experience things differently, but we should always strive to do better, and be attentive to one another’s perceptions.”
Payette said she concluded a new governor general should be appointed out of respect for the integrity of the viceregal office and the good of the country. “Canadians deserve stability in these uncertain times,” she said.
Singh: Trudeau was too interested in ‘flashy’ appointment
At an earlier press conference Friday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Trudeau shares some responsibility for the fiasco.
“Really, it comes down to Justin Trudeau, who was more interested in a flashy announcement of a governor general rather than doing the work of making sure it was a right selection,” Singh said. “And it seems to be an ongoing trend, this pursuit of a flashy headline instead of working to get the job done.”
The prime minister “clearly” failed to vet Payette properly, given concerns about her conduct which had been raised in the past, the NDP leader said. He also called out the Trudeau government for not having done more to help Rideau Hall staffers.
“It is wrong that workers had to endure conditions for so long without any recourse. They didn’t know what to do,” he said. “They didn’t have any way to raise these concerns.”
In September, weeks after different media reports of Payette’s alleged workplace harassment, Trudeau suggested on a Vancouver radio show he was not interested in making a change in the viceregal role.
“We have an excellent governor general right now and I think, on top of the COVID crisis, nobody is looking at any constitutional crises,” Trudeau said at the time.
Trudeau later defended those glowing words by pointing to Payette’s “long and successful role” as a scientist and astronaut.
With files from Zi-Ann Lum