As appointments go, the choice of Julie Payette as Canada’s new Governor General was figuratively out of this world. The former astronaut had completed two missions to the space station and spent seven years as the Canadian Space Agency’s chief astronaut. But her qualifications were far more wide ranging: speaking six languages, commercial pilot, a computer engineer, and active participant in numerous social causes.
Yet there was one key component to add to the appeal of the 53-year old from Montreal and it was pivotal: Payette perfectly fit Canada’s present view of itself. The almost universal testimonials to her appointment were proof enough of that reality and the celebrations prompted by the announcement spoke to our own collective view of present-day Canada in the midst of a troubled world.
This country has a history of doing the unexpected when it comes to the Governor General selection. Two of the last three Governors General were women and each played a dynamic role in presenting a Canadian face that was acceptable not only for domestic consumption but for international appeal. Payette appears more than ready to break new ground in the pattern of Adrienne Clarkson and Michelle Jean, not to mention David Johnson, who preceded her. Their appointments were a tribute, not only the remarkable individuality of these leaders, but to a nation that discerned in them a reflection of itself.
In recent months I’ve been authoring a thematic study of John Buchan, one of John F, Kennedy’s favourite authors, and Canada’s 15th Governor General (1935-1940). Even in those pivotal years as we entered World War Two Canada was willing to break the mould. His appointment created a sensation when it was reported that he was the first commoner ever selected for the position (he was actually the second). Rather than some kind of convenient placeholder from the British House of Lords, as was the tradition, Buchan was an internationally acclaimed author – his most famous work being Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy thriller later made into two major movies.
But Buchan was more than a wordsmith. He worked for the British government in South Africa, oversaw Britain’s spies in World War One, was a Member of Parliament for Scottish universities, an avid adventurer, and a successful businessman and publisher. What Canada was getting in those formative years was an appointee that transcended politics. This was Canada’s first great challenge to the British parliament in saying that it wanted to choose its own Governor General – breaking the historical pattern of selection only by the monarch of England.
Buchan travelled Canada extensively, especially First Nations communities, and fought for the right of individual groups to have their own identities recognized by both government and citizens. After spending years writing on the uniqueness of Canada’s character prior to his appointment, Buchan then began to build on what he had written and helped to transform Canada in the process.
As the appointment of Buchan revealed, and as Payette’s selection affirms, this country loves those individual leaders who are larger than life. When author Brian Moore wrote of the Canada he knew in the 1960s, he spoke honestly: “Walls, both physical and political, have always partitioned this enormous land, turning its citizens’ gaze inward.” Yet our selection of Governors General, especially in recent years, has blown the lid off that assessment. Jean was a refugee who came to Canada from Haiti. Clarkson became a dynamic journalist after arriving from Hong Kong. David Johnson was a brilliant academic and university leader. These last three Governors General alone defy our collective parochialism and domestic preoccupations.
And now we have an astronaut/humanitarian/engineer/francophone/musician/pilot and athlete about to take up residence in Rideau Hall and reflecting the dynamism of a modern nation that is in the process of discovering its role in a changing world. Having orbited the planet some 400 times, Payette’s view of Canada has been of its position within a larger context. For the next few years this remarkably able woman will have the privilege of showing us our own uniqueness and potential in that world. The timing couldn’t have been more fitting.