OTTAWA — Former astronaut Julie Payette appeared emotional Thursday after being officially declared Canada’s next Governor General, taking a moment to salute her family, friends, and colleagues on Earth and a few above the planet.
The 53-year-old from Montreal will become the fourth female to be the monarch’s representative in Canada when she is sworn in later this year, taking over from Gov. Gen. David Johnston whose term expires in September.
“Just like it is in space travel, we don’t necessarily do things because they’re easy, but because they’re hard,” Payette said.
“And the task will be hard because it requires (me) to follow in the footsteps of giants.”
Her appointment marks the next step in the evolution of the office, suggesting that political experience is no longer a requirement for the job — making Canadians rethink who could end up in the role, said the head of the Monarchist League of Canada.
“It sounds kids of cliche, but it does put a modern spin on the role because you’re able to have a different kind of person in that office. I think that’s where there will be a good opportunity for her to elevate that office right across the country,” Robert Finch said.
But her appointment could also make Canadians question the need to tie the Governor General to Royal Family, said Philippe Lagasse, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University.
“The reaction might be, well, look, why do we need Royals when we can have such stellar people as our head of state, as opposed to our head of state’s representative?” said Lagasse, who frequently comments on Canada’s parliamentary system and institutions.
“It calls into question, I would say, the necessity of having the monarchy.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he first reached out to Payette about taking the job a few weeks ago. After a series of conversations, he said it became clear that he should recommend her for the post.
Trudeau made his decision without the help of a viceregal selection committee that former prime minister Stepher Harper used to choose Johnston.
Trudeau defended the selection process, saying Payette won the job on merit.
“Ms. Payette’s life has been one dedicated to discovery, to dreaming big and to always staying focused on the things that matter most,” Trudeau said.
“These truly Canadian traits, along with her years of public service, make her unquestionably qualified for this high office.”
Payette was the first Canadian female to board the International Space Station in 1999. She went on a second space flight in 2009.
She is fluently bilingual and speaks four other languages, including Russian. She has corporate and government experience through her time at the Canadian Space Agency and as a vice-president at the Canada Lands Co., which oversees the sales of unneeded federal properties.
And she has military experience, a quality that may help in her role as the military’s commander-in-chief: Payette qualified as a military jet captain in 1996 after logging hundreds of hours of flight time on the CT-114 Tutor jets, the same ones flown by the Snowbird team.
Her appointment drew praise from across the political spectrum, even though there had been hopes that Trudeau would select an Indigenous Governor General as a symbolic step in the reconciliation process.
Payette vowed to serve Canadians “of all backgrounds, of all walks of life, either new or not-so-new,” focusing on what she described as core Canadian values: “tolerance, openness and working together.”
She will be installed as Governor General during a ceremony this fall.
But first, she will go through weeks of briefings and preparations to take over from Johnston, as well as have a meeting with the Queen.
Johnston will have an audience with the Queen next week when he travels to the U.K. for Canada 150 events, marking the last time he meets with the monarch he represents. Payette also indicated she would be leaning on Johnston for advice as she readies to take the reins at Rideau Hall.
“I am certain that she will fulfil this role with intelligence, grace and energy, and that she will bring qualities of curiosity, courage and compassion to her mandate,” Johnston said in a statement from Beijing, where he is currently on an official visit.
During his tenure as Governor General, Johnston focused on education, philanthropy and innovation, and also making awards like the Order of Canada more accessible to Canadians.
Payette said she was still thinking about how she’ll handle the role.
“You can imagine though that it might be related, some of it, to science, technology and moving forward in a society of knowledge,” she said.
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press