The former astronaut who served as Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Canada resigned abruptly Thursday ahead of the release of a scathing report into allegations of bullying and harassment in a toxic workplace.
Julie Payette, long at the center of a swirl of controversies, had since July been the subject of investigation after public servants and ex-staffers accused the viceregal emissary and her secretary of bullying and public humiliation.
Allegations date to the earliest days of her tenure when she would reportedly put staff on the spot to quiz them on outer space, demanding they name every planet or correctly state the distance between the sun and the moon, CBC News reported last year.
The long list of accusations against Payette includes temper tantrums and reducing staff to tears.
“Tensions have arisen at Rideau Hall over the past few months and for that, I am sorry,” Payette said in a statement Thursday evening. “I have come to the conclusion that a new governor general should be appointed. Canadians deserve stability in these uncertain times.”
The role of governor general: Though an apolitical and largely ceremonial role, the office of the governor general is Canada’s oldest continuous institution. The GG, as the office holder is often known, serves as the Canadian representative of the British monarchy — in this case, Queen Elizabeth II — and is in charge of ensuring Canada has a prime minister and government in place that has the confidence of Parliament. The governor general is also Canada’s commander-in-chief.
Payette is the first governor general to quit in modern Canadian history and her departure comes as the Trudeau Liberals hang on to minority status in Parliament.
Payette was a signature appointment of Trudeau’s first term. She faced a number of controversies from the minute she took the role — and, as it turned out, in roles she’d held previously. The appointment has been seen as a glaring failure of the Trudeau government’s vetting process.
What happened: Earlier Thursday, news broke that third-party investigators had prepared a “scathing” report — at a cost of nearly C$90,000 — into claims of a toxic work environment perpetuated by Payette and her secretary Assunta Di Lorenzo. Some findings of that confidential report are expected to be released as early as this week, according to the Globe and Mail.
The unprecedented probe was launched by the federal government after dozens of past and current employees told news outlets that Payette “belittled” and “screamed” at employees. Payette also allegedly threw “tantrums” during trips abroad and would publicly humiliate staffers to the point of tears.
A source also told CBC News that Rideau Hall had gone from being one of the most enjoyable places to work in the federal government to a “house of horrors.”
Payette, who was the first Canadian to serve at the International Space Station, was appointed in 2017 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Even as the investigation was underway, he defended Payette, saying in September that she was “excellent” at her job and he had no intention of asking her to step aside.
In her resignation statement, Payette was apologetic, and said she would use her departure to spend time with her father who is in poor health.
“We all experience things differently, but we should always strive to do better, and be attentive to one another’s perception,” she said.
Running list of controversies: Days after Payette was tapped to become governor general it was revealed she’d been charged with second-degree assault in 2011 while living in Maryland. The charge, which Payette said was “unfounded,” was subsequently expunged. It was then revealed that Payette had been involved in a fatal hit-and-run car accident involving a pedestrian that same year, though that case was closed without charges following a police investigation.
Trudeau defended picking Payette nonetheless, saying at the time: “There are no issues that arose in the course of that vetting process that would be any reason to expect Mme. Payette to be anything other than the extraordinary governor general that she will be.”
Payette faced more criticism for delaying her move into the governor general’s official residence, only doing so after two years of ongoing renovations to address privacy concerns — at a cost of more than C$250,000.
And last year, CBC News reported that Trudeau’s office failed to check with Payette’s former employees during its vetting process. As it turned out, Payette had resigned from the Montreal Science Centre in 2016 following complaints of mistreatment of employees, according to the news outlet. She also left the Canadian Olympic Committee in 2017, the year she became governor general, after two internal probes into claims she had verbally harassed staff members.
Trudeau’s response: Trudeau released a short statement Thursday evening saying that Payette’s resignation provides “an opportunity for new leadership at Rideau Hall to address the workplace concerns raised by employees during the review.”
“Every employee in the Government of Canada has the right to work in a safe and healthy environment, and we will always take this very seriously,” he said.
Next steps: Chief Justice Richard Wagner of Canada’s Supreme Court has stepped in to replace Payette for the time being. Trudeau’s office said a recommendation for a permanent replacement will be made to Queen Elizabeth “in due course.”