OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his Liberal government will look at how it can improve vetting for high-level appointments after the unprecedented resignation of the governor general over allegations of a toxic work environment at Rideau Hall.
“We will continue to look at the best way to select people for viceregal appointments,” Trudeau told a news conference Friday outside his residence at Rideau Cottage.
“It’s an important role for Canadians and we will look at how we can improve it.”
Julie Payette announced her resignation from the role on Thursday, about a week after the government received the damning findings of an independent investigation into allegations of harassment and other workplace issues at Rideau Hall.
Trudeau said he spoke with the Queen by telephone Friday to let her know that Chief Justice Richard Wagner is stepping in until Trudeau names a new governor general.
A Buckingham Palace spokesperson said earlier that the Queen was being kept informed and will leave the matter in the hands of the Canadian government.
Trudeau said everyone deserves a safe and healthy workplace, including employees at Rideau Hall. He also said the work they have done has been “exceptional.”
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Thursday the debacle of Payette’s tenure shows a need to strengthen the process for vetting viceregal appointments.
Trudeau chose the former astronaut to be Canada’s 29th governor general in 2017 — after disbanding a non-partisan, arm’s-length committee created by the previous Conservative government to recommend worthy nominees for viceregal posts.
Trudeau faced questions Friday about his judgment and his government’s failure to check with Payette’s former employers at the Montreal Science Centre and the Canadian Olympic Committee, where she faced similar allegations of harassing and bullying subordinates.
Trudeau, while saying Friday the vetting process needs to be improved, would not commit to reinstating that non-partisan, arm’s-length committee to choose her successor.
LeBlanc said the report, commissioned by the Privy Council Office which he oversees, came to “compelling” and “stark” conclusions and that Payette’s tenure shows that the vetting system for such appointments needs to be strengthened.
“Obviously, this circumstance is far from ideal,” LeBlanc said in an interview shortly after Payette’s resignation.
“There always has been a process of vetting, of checks that are made when somebody is appointed to any government job. But clearly, the process can be strengthened, can be improved.”
LeBlanc said discussions have already been had with those responsible for vetting, but the prime minister hasn’t had time yet to reflect on the best way to choose Payette’s successor. The government will have more to say on that likely next week, he said.
Trudeau’s minority Liberal government could be defeated at any time and, were that to happen, it would fall to the governor general to decide whether to call an election or give Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole a chance to see if he can command the confidence of the House of Commons.
Until a successor is named, Wagner will assume the duties of the governor general so there will be no constitutional vacuum. Still, LeBlanc said the government intends to move quickly to find a successor.
“We recognize also the need to be expeditious, not to have the chief justice acting in this role for a period of months. I don’t think that would be appropriate.”
The government does not intend to release the report just yet due to privacy issues and the promises of confidentiality made to all complainants, LeBlanc said. But it will eventually release a redacted version of the report in response to requests made under the Access to Information Act.
While he wouldn’t go into details, LeBlanc said the report found Rideau Hall “was obviously an unacceptable workplace.”
“Public servants who work for the government of Canada have the right to a secure, safe and healthy workplace and we are adamant … that standard be upheld at every institution of the government of Canada.”
He said the report “painted a picture that was not consistent” with that standard.
The Senate recently agreed to pay $498,000 in compensation to nine former employees of ex-senator Don Meredith, who was accused of sexually harassing, belittling and humiliating his staff.
LeBlanc said there’s been no consideration thus far — and no mention in the report — of paying compensation to Rideau Hall employees, some dozen of whom complained anonymously to the CBC about Payette yelling at, belittling and publicly humiliating staff, reducing some to tears and prompting some to quit.
He said such questions will be handled by senior PCO officials, who are planning to talk with all employees at Rideau Hall to plan next steps.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the choice of Payette was one of style over substance.
“Really it comes down to Justin Trudeau, who was more interested in a flashy announcement of a governor general rather than doing the work of making sure it was the right selection,” Singh told a virtual news conference Friday.
“And it seems to be an ongoing trend, this pursuit of a flashy headline instead of working to get the job done.”