FOLLOW THE GOLDEN RULE
Governors General tend to take up causes. And although they are unelected, Canadians broadly accept their activism. The last resident of Rideau Hall, David Johnston, extolled the virtues of volunteerism. His predecessor, Michaelle Jean, advocated powerfully for helping Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Adrienne Clarkson vocally supported the military, the arts and the Arctic.
True, all of them ran into controversy at different times, for different reasons: Clarkson for allegedly spending too much, Jean for defending the seal hunt and being too outspoken on Quebec, Johnston for a brief recent reference to Indigenous people as “immigrants.” But mostly, modern GGs have stayed on the right side of public advocacy.
Julie Payette, however, is in office during the social media era, where nastiness and ridicule is an acceptable modus operandi. She captured the snide tone of the Twitterverse in remarks last week in which she criticized religious views and people who haven’t made it past the debate stage on climate change.
We hope, and believe, she’ll take a lesson from the blowback over those remarks. As an astronaut, engineer and businesswoman — and as a woman and francophone — she can be a crucial gender role model, a powerful advocate for science and a wonderful educator on evidence-based thinking. Putting her into Rideau Hall has the potential to kick-start fresh enthusiasm for “STEM”— science, technology, engineering and math — in a country trying to show the world it is a tech-savvy destination for higher learning and innovative jobs. Think of Payette’s powerful symbolism as this country reaches out to global IT businesses that might be considering locating in Canada.
Meanwhile, says Philippe Lagassé, an international affairs professor at Carleton University, it is appropriate for her to warn about the dangers of climate change, but it should be done without pointing to specific policy prescriptions — yea or nay on a carbon tax, for instance. And of course it should be done without mocking people.
She might also like to hone her science focus further: Indigenous research, says a recent review of science policy, doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and Indigenous people are under-represented among professors. So are women and those with disabilities. It’s fertile ground for vice-regal consciousness-raising.
As long as Payette follows the Golden Rule — a guideline associated with myriad religions, by the way — her voice will be an asset to public discourse. And it will be embraced by Canadians.