Payette right to speak out and to keep talk­ing

Simcoe Reformer - Times-Reformer - - OPINION - ANDREW COHEN

Oh, to be Gover­nor Gen­eral of Canada, the world’s most earnest coun­try. Oh, to be Gover­nor Gen­eral en­cum­bered with an ed­u­ca­tion in math­e­mat­ics, en­gi­neer­ing and aero­nau­tics. Oh, to be Gover­nor Gen­eral cel­e­brat­ing science with a re­fresh­ing, if art­less, hon­esty.

This is what it is to be Julie Payette. Ad­dress a science con­fer­ence, as a sci­en­tist, and de­fend science. Ques­tion cre­ation­ism and a lit­tle as­trol­ogy, too. Dare to doubt a “su­gar pill” can cure cancer.

Try this, as vice-re­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Canada, and feel the wrath of the ag­grieved come down upon you. Re­sign! Apol­o­gize! Fire your speech­writer!

Her Ex­cel­lency should have known that re­ject­ing as­trol­ogy and cre­ation­ism in Canada might be seen as an at­tack on faith. Chal­leng­ing or­tho­doxy here — real or per­ceived — is not done, which is iron­i­cally why we can­not have an adult con­ver­sa­tion on abol­ish­ing the monar­chy.

Noth­ing gets the harpies, the roy­al­ists, the con­struc­tion­ists, the purists and the lit­er­al­ists go­ing like a mouthy Gover­nor Gen­eral ques­tion­ing old pieties and dis­cred­ited no­tions. She’s ris­ing above her sta­tion or fall­ing be­low it.

As a woman fa­mously said of Lester Pear­son af­ter hear­ing he’d won the No­bel Prize in 1957: “Well, who does he think he is?”

Who is Madame Payette to won­der that “we’re still de­bat­ing and still ques­tion­ing whether hu­mans have a role in the Earth warm­ing up or whether even the Earth is warm­ing up, pe­riod?”

Who is she to doubt that “your fu­ture . . . can be de­ter­mined by look­ing at plan­ets com­ing in front of in­vented con­stel­la­tions?”

Who is she to won­der that “we are still de­bat­ing . . . whether life was a di­vine in­ter­ven­tion or whether it was com­ing out of a nat­u­ral process let alone, oh my good­ness, a ran­dom process?”

For ut­ter­ing this blas­phemy, the nanny bri­gade called her a par­ti­san, com­pro­mis­ing her of­fice. They slapped her wrist and sent her to be bed with­out a Happy Meal.

It is the usual sus­pects wag­ging a wrin­kled fin­ger. This is what you get from the Miss Thistle­bot­toms and their schools of scolds when you ven­ture be­yond gover­nor gen­er­al­i­ties.

Asked the head­line over a crit­i­cal col­umn by Robyn Ur­back: “In what uni­verse is it ap­pro­pri­ate for a Gover­nor Gen­eral to de­ride peo­ple for their be­liefs?” Well, ac­tu­ally, this uni­verse if those be­liefs (it isn’t clear Payette at­tacked re­li­gion) be­come public pol­icy against a body of ev­i­dence that shows cli­mate change is real. This uni­verse in­cludes a pres­i­dent of the United States who de­nies cli­mate change.

Of course the Gover­nor Gen­eral shouldn’t of­fend peo­ple, nor cause the gov­ern­ment to squirm. But that doesn’t mean she should stay home and pour tea. That’s not why she was ap­pointed, and why Cather­ine McKenna, min­is­ter of the en­vi­ron­ment and cli­mate change, was right to de­fend her.

McKenna sees more than any­one the con­se­quences of ig­nor­ing cli­mate change. This in­cludes Washington’s frontal at­tack on the en­vi­ron­ment: cut­ting fund­ing to the Great Lakes Basin, weak­en­ing the Clean Air Act, with­draw­ing from the Paris Accord on Cli­mate Change.

Payette of­fered a few brac­ing truths. In our Or­wellian world of false­hood and fake news, Canada ben­e­fits from a word of doubt from a fig­ure of au­thor­ity.

In­deed, let her talk more of things un­said in our coun­try: sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the mil­i­tary and be­yond; a cit­i­zen’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as well as rights; the blight of child poverty. Of what are we afraid?

Un­bound by 19th-cen­tury stric­tures, Payette can care­fully and cre­atively raise public aware­ness and pro­voke use­ful de­bate, af­firm­ing, once again, that it’s 2017. Andrew Cohen, a jour­nal­ist, pro­fes­sor and au­thor of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made His­tory.

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