Payette could redefine Governor General’s role
Julie Payette did something extraordinary after taking the oath as Governor General of Canada this week: She stood ( rather than sat) in the well of the Senate and spoke ( rather than read) her remarks, without text or teleprompter.
It was a performance. Her words were picked, cut and arranged like an autumn bouquet. To prompt herself, she wrote key words on her fingers, like a Jesuit.
Her remarks never felt forced. She looked unhurried and unfazed, even faintly bemused — as if becoming Canada’s vice- regal representative was like solving another aeronautical problem or learning to play another musical instrument.
Occasionally, she even sounded spontaneous, returning once to a point she had forgotten to mention earlier. How refreshing in a time when public officials are scripted and packaged. Amid the ersatz, Payette is authenticity itself.
It has a lot to do with the confidence of success earned rather than conferred. Justin Trudeau called her “a polyglot”; even more, she is a polymath. She wanted to go to the Olympics as a youth but could not get there, she recalled, so she turned her talents elsewhere. She has what all successful people have: Desire. She is also a political natural. Still, this wasn’t the Gettysburg Address or the 123rd Psalm. There were no oratorical flourishes, touches of poetry or historical quotations typical of other addresses on this occasion. For the best of them, see Adrienne Clarkson’s remarks on her installation 18 years ago.
Her themes were unity, ambition, compassion, solidarity. None is new or startling. All are enduring. “We are aboard the same planetary spaceship,” she said, one of several references to her time in space.
She said nothing terribly provocative, but when she declared as a scientist how evidence and data matter, it reminds us that Stephen Harper — the slayer of the long- form census — would never have appointed her. She’s too independent.
Like all governors general, she will choose her causes — science, education, nature, among them. Will she be content with cutting ribbons, pouring tea and uttering governor-generalities? Unlikely.
My sense is that she will push, provoke, surprise. Our contented country does not need to hear again how great it is; the politicians do that often enough. We need longer horizons, bigger minds and more restless souls.
Ending child poverty, attacking obesity, eliminating the digital divide, teaching our history, giving meaning to our citizenship, raising awareness of Indigenous Canada — all are urgent causes that she could make her own.
More pointedly, she could make her office more Canadian, reducing the references to the Queen. This is a subtle but overdue imperative in the maturing of our neo- colonial country — now well into adulthood — that clings to the obsolete monarchy.
Regardless of what she does, she will become a symbol of a new Canada. Her persona will make her an international celebrity as she travels abroad as our de facto head of state. In a country with a youthful prime minster in flashy socks and two youthful party leaders, she will become part of the brand, too: Energetic, optimistic, progressive.
This will look good on Canada. It is hard currency in a world of celebrity, branding and foreign policy on the cheap.
At the very hour Payette spoke Monday, so did Donald Trump. As mourner- in- chief, he offered consolation after the worse mass killing in the country’s blooddrenched history.
We are not immune to violence, as the recent attack in Edmonton reminds us. But in that ritual in Parliament, the differences between them and us are clearer than ever. Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author.