Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his officials never conducted checks with Julie Payette’s former employers at the Montreal Science Centre and the Canadian Olympic Committee that might have raised red flags about her behaviour with co-workers and subordinates before her appointment as Governor General, sources tell CBC News.
Multiple sources have told CBC News they were stunned by Trudeau’s decision to appoint Payette in 2017. They have questioned the prime minister’s judgment.
“A number of us were blown away when she got appointed,” said a former board member at the Canada Lands Company (CLC), the self-financing Crown corporation that owns and operates the Montreal Science Centre. Payette was vice president of CLC and chief operating officer of the Montreal Science Centre from 2013 to 2016.
“This is a Crown corporation owned by the government,” said the former board member. “You would have thought they’d call to check out her credentials.”
Payette and her Rideau Hall office are now at the centre of an unprecedented third-party investigation launched by the Privy Council Office. In July, a CBC News report quoted a dozen confidential public servants and former employees who claim the Governor General belittled, berated and publicly humiliated Rideau Hall staff.
Payette received severance in 2016: sources
Payette was given severance of roughly $200,000 when she resigned from the Montreal Science Centre in 2016 following complaints about her treatment of employees, say multiple sources. In 2017, Payette left the Canadian Olympic Committee after two internal investigations into her treatment of staff, sources said.
CBC News spoke to 15 confidential sources who worked with Payette, including current and former employees and board members at the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Montreal Science Centre, the Canada Lands Company and the Canadian Space Agency. They spoke on the condition they not be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly, could lose their jobs, still work in the industry or, in some cases, continue to interact with Rideau Hall.
The Prime Minister’s Office would not say if it was aware of the complaints made against Payette at these institutions.
“The Governor General is recommended on a broad range of factors and done with the appropriate due diligence,” said press secretary Alex Wellstead in a statement to CBC News. “Any questions about previous roles should be directed to the organizations in question.”
A spokesperson for the Governor General’s office issued a statement to CBC News calling Payette an “outstanding Canadian” and “a trailblazer for women” and pushed back against the reports of workplace harassment.
“Over the course of her career, no formal complaint has ever been filed against her, nor has she ever resigned from a board of director position, including at the Canadian Olympic Committee, where she finished her term,” said the statement from Payette’s press secretary, Ashlee Smith.
“She has served on more than a dozen boards over the years in an exemplary manner,” the statement said.
Payette accused of berating staffer at 2016 Olympics
In April of 2016 — the year Payette left the Montreal Science Centre — she was appointed to the board of the Canadian Olympic Committee. That same year, two employees of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) complained to the committee about Payette’s treatment of staff, triggering internal HR investigations.
The COC board spoke to Payette about the complaints, said the sources. Payette did not apply for an extended term.
In one case, Payette was accused of berating a young female employee to the point of tears while at the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio in August, according to several current and former Canadian Olympic Committee staffers.
Payette is alleged to have screamed at the employee over having to wait with her son for a Canadian Olympic Committee vehicle to pick them up from an event they attended privately in Copacabana, the sources claimed. Payette complained it wasn’t healthy for them to be standing on the street breathing in pollution for that long and called the situation “ridiculous,” the sources claim.
In the second instance of a COC employee filing a complaint against Payette, say sources, Payette was accused in November of 2016 of overstepping her authority by threatening to fire an employee during a meeting for not having ready answers to her questions.
“Staff couldn’t do anything to make her happy,” said one former COC employee. “She would erupt out of nowhere. What she chalked up to appropriate behaviour would under every circumstance be inappropriate behaviour. We were all just supposed to sit there and take it.”
When contacted about this story, Payette’s press secretary suggested CBC News speak to John Furlong to provide balance to the unnamed accounts of Payette’s conduct. Furlong worked with Payette on the board of Own the Podium, a not-for-profit organization that supports Canadian Olympic athletes, for several years before she joined the COC.
Furlong, the former chair of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC), said he witnessed no incidents of harassment involving Payette during that time and called her “an exemplary board member.
“She had a perfect attendance record. She did her homework and read the material, which was extensive,” he told CBC News.
“She was very engaged, collaborative [and] involved. I would give her a very high mark for her performance there.”
(Furlong is himself no stranger to controversy. He was accused in 2012 of verbal and physical abuse of First Nations students in northern B.C. decades ago, allegations Furlong has consistently and strenuously denied. The RCMP investigated and concluded there were no grounds for charges, and civil claims were either dropped or dismissed.)
In her media statement, Smith pointed out that, “shortly before her term was completed, [Payette] was appointed as a member of the International Olympic Committee Women in Sport Commission on which she still serves.”
Payette became a COC board member in April 2016 after the former president Marcel Aubut resigned over a sexual harassment scandal in 2015. In the wake of the controversy, the organization vowed to make sweeping changes to prevent similar issues in the future.
In a statement issued to CBC News, the Canadian Olympic Committee said it “is not appropriate for us to make public comment on any former or current Board member on such matters and leave this to the mandate of the Office of the Privy Council.” Instead, the organization pointed CBC News to its conduct policy, which states that harassment is not tolerated and says that even “one incident could be enough to constitute harassment.”
“Harassment includes bullying, and can take many forms but often involves conduct, comment or display that is insulting, intimidating, humiliating, hurtful, demeaning, belittling, malicious, degrading, or otherwise causes offence, discomfort, or personal humiliation or embarrassment to a person or group of persons,” reads the policy.
A former Canada Lands employee with direct knowledge of the matter said the Crown corporation could have warned the Prime Minister’s Office had it reached out before Payette’s appointment.
“The red flags were her relationship with her employees, her controlling attitude and her resistance to administrative authority,” said a former board member.
The board of directors at Canada Lands met Payette at an annual gala in 2013. Bowled over by her charisma and celebrity status in Quebec, they rushed to hire Payette without the normal due diligence or evaluation process, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter.
The board members hoped Payette would woo donors and boost fundraising. But it quickly became clear Payette lacked experience in managing staff and was learning on the job, multiple sources claim.
A ‘tense’ and ‘painful’ time
The National Post documented Payette’s tumultuous time at the science museum and how her behaviour foreshadowed issues later reported at Rideau Hall. Radio Canada also reported on claims that Payette had created a toxic climate there by subjecting employees to unjustified criticism.
CBC News spoke to several people who worked with Payette at the Montreal Science Centre, including former employees who claim they were victims of verbal harassment. One former staff member described it as a “tense” and “painful time” and said staff members never knew who would be the target of Payette’s criticisms at a meeting.
“HR was aware,” said a different source with direct knowledge. “Everyone was aware. HR were witnessing it because they were in the same meetings. Some colleagues complained directly to HR.”
Senior management at Canada Lands also saw Payette sulk and turn teary-eyed in meetings if she didn’t get her way, said a source. In one case, said a source, Payette pushed back against a plan for Canada Lands to commission a routine survey of employees to improve the working environment at its properties.
“Julie fought it tooth and nail,” said one former Canada Lands employee. “She strongly resisted wanting it done at the Montreal Science Centre.”
Canada Lands went ahead with the survey. Payette was still so upset with the project that, when an HR consultant arrived to give a presentation about the survey, Payette pointedly ignored them, according to two sources who say they witnessed the interaction first-hand.
The Canada Lands Company quietly awarded Payette a year’s salary as severance when she resigned in Oct. 2016, said multiple former employees and former board members. Sources said she was paid the severance so that the federal Crown corporations managing the science museum — Canada Lands and the Old Port of Montreal — could protect their reputations.
Canada Lands said that for privacy reasons, and out of respect for current and past employees, it “will not discuss personnel matters.” It did say it has a “comprehensive” policy on respect in the workplace that applies to all staff.
“Ms. Payette’s departure was her decision after serving three years at the Montreal Science Centre,” said Canada Lands’ VP of corporate communications Marcelo Gomez-Wiuckstern in a statement to CBC News. “She contributed greatly to the Science Centre’s success and we appreciated her ideas and vision.”
‘I don’t want to be in a room with her’
Complaints about Payette’s workplace behaviour date all the way back to her years at the Canadian Space Agency in the 1990s and early 2000s. Some who worked with her there say they have no wish to interact with her again.
“I don’t want to be in a room with her, unless she wanted to apologize,” said one former Canadian Space Agency employee. “She would comment on people’s work in a very negative and demeaning way. There is Julie Payette’s way or it’s not good.”
Sources report Payette would lash out at staff by calling them at home during off-hours to denigrate their work.
“For me leadership is about helping others grow. She’s the other way around,” said one former employee. “She didn’t want to help others shine.”
Others describe a more professional, collegial workplace relationship with Payette.
Fabienne Lebranchu worked at the agency on Payette’s second mission to space, booking her travel tickets and expense claims. She said that when she travelled to Houston for work, Payette would invite her to her house for a glass of wine so that she wouldn’t be stuck alone in a hotel room.
Lebranchu said Payette has a type-A personality, like other astronauts, and had a stressful job at the Canadian Space Agency, but she never saw her treat her colleagues poorly.
“She was very nice,” said Lebranchu, adding she’d like to work with Payette again at Rideau Hall. “She appreciated the work we did for her, she would thank us and always asked us if she needed anything else for her expense claims.”
Maclean’s magazine has reported that, for two years in a row, Payette’s office at Rideau Hall ranked among the worst in the public service for harassment complaints. An annual government survey conducted last year showed 22 per cent of respondents working for Rideau Hall claimed to have experienced harassment. Of those employees, 74 per cent attributed the harassment to individuals with authority over them.
Trudeau defended vetting process
Trudeau is now facing renewed criticism over his approach to choosing Payette for the job — selecting his personal pick for the role rather than using former prime minister Stephen Harper’s advisory committee process to suggest suitable candidates.
For months, Trudeau skirted the controversy over Payette’s relationship with Rideau Hall staff. He came to her defence early this month, calling Payette an “excellent” Governor General and saying he had no intention of replacing her right now. That comment upset the whistleblowers who claimed harassment — one said Trudeau’s words felt like a “kick to the stomach.”
In 2017, the online political news outlet iPolitics reported that police had charged Payette with second-degree assault in 2012 while she was living in Maryland; the charge was later dismissed and expunged from her record and Payette herself called the charge “unfounded”.
The Toronto Star also reported that Payette had struck and killed a pedestrian while driving in Maryland in 2011. Police subsequently found Payette was not at fault.
Trudeau defended his vetting process In 2017 and said nothing in Payette’s past disqualified her from the job of Queen’s representative.
“I assure everyone that 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,” he said in July 2017.
Barbara Messamore, a history professor at the University of the Fraser Valley and fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada at Massey College, said the advisory board is a recent innovation and Trudeau didn’t abandon a time-honoured tradition. She said there’s still a strong argument for using it now, in light of the recent controversy.
And if the government didn’t ask the Montreal Science Museum and Canadian Olympic Committee for references, she said, it “suggests a failure of the vetting process.”
“The process that was used was evidently not entirely adequate,” said Messamore. “It didn’t uncover some things that ought to have been known. If they did indeed know those things, I would have described them as a deal-breaker.”