The Privy Council Office said on Wednesday it is “very concerned” about allegations of inappropriate workplace behaviour against Governor-General Julie Payette as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced calls to address the matter.
“Harassment has no place in any professional workplace,” the PCO said in a statement Wednesday evening. “We take all questions of harassment very seriously.”
The statement said they are in regular contact with Rideau Hall and “will be following up on these reports” of harassment in the Governor-General’s office. The Privy Council Clerk is the head of the public service and Rideau Hall staff are federal employees.
On Tuesday, CBC News reported that sources said Ms. Payette created a toxic environment at Rideau Hall by verbally harassing employees to the point where some have been reduced to tears or have left the office altogether. The report also included allegations of harassment against Assunta Di Lorenzo, her long-time friend and secretary.
Ms. Di Lorenzo sent a memo to Rideau Hall employees on Wednesday addressing the “troubling” CBC report while relaying a promise to improve the work environment.
“I want you to know that I, along with the Governor General and the entire management team, am deeply committed to fostering a healthy work environment,” read the memo. “Please rest assured that the well-being of our employees remains our priority.”
Rideau Hall press secretary Ashlee Smith also said in a statement the Governor-General and management “strongly believe” in the importance of a healthy workplace. “We have taken many steps to foster this, we will continue to do so and will work at constantly improving.”
A senior government source, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the government wants to know more about recent complaints and that the issue is complex because it involves the Queen’s representative in Canada.
The source said any review process would involve Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart because Rideau Hall staff are public servants.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh urged Mr. Trudeau to address the complaints given the number and seriousness of them.
“I think the Prime Minister should certainly follow up,” Mr. Singh said. “I am not being prescriptive about how.”
Mr. Singh also thanked employees for coming forward, adding it is tough and takes courage.
“You’ve made some serious complaints,” he said. “There should be a serious follow-up. You deserve that.”
In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said every Canadian has the right to work in a healthy, respectful and safe environment and referred questions about the Governor-General to Rideau Hall.
Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor at Carleton University and an expert on the Westminster parliamentary system, said the Privy Council Clerk should speak with Ms. Payette’s secretary, Ms. Di Lorenzo about the allegations. He added that the Prime Minister should have an informal conversation with Ms. Payette.
“If some kind of solution can’t be found between the Prime Minister, the Privy Council Office and the Governor-General of Rideau Hall and if really the only solution is to relieve Mme. Payette of her duties – I don’t think it’ll ever get to that and it’s not supposed to get to that – that is the last measure that’s available,” Prof. Lagassé said.
Employment lawyer Ryan Edmonds said federal regulations on workplace harassment and violence prevention set to come into force in January, 2021, could help to address the concern about the complaint mechanism that exists for Rideau Hall employees. Dustin Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for Labour Minister Filomena Tassi, said Wednesday that Bill C-65 aims to protect federal employees, including on Parliament Hill and the staff at Rideau Hall.
Mr. Edmonds said a positive thing about the regulations announced at the end of June is that they require federally regulated employers to conduct a workplace risk assessment and one of the factors is organizational structure.
Mr. Edmonds also noted a provision that allows people to file complaints with their employers or with a designated recipient and that individual has power to begin an investigation or complaint resolution process.
“Really that designated recipient could be the ombudsperson, someone who is completely separate from Rideau Hall,” he said.
The Globe has previously reported on disputes that highlighted Ms. Payette’s struggle to fit into the vice-regal role including that RCMP sources said she had frequently been at odds with the Mounties over security issues in the first year of her mandate. A former astronaut, Ms. Payette was appointed Governor-General in 2017.
Robert Finch, dominion chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada, said the league has had an “excellent” relationship with Ms. Payette, Ms. Di Lorenzo and Rideau Hall staff. But he said if the complaints are indeed true that they should be “regretted and remedied.”
Citizens for a Canadian Republic, an organization that has long called for the governor-general to be democratically selected rather than by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister, said the harassment allegations raise questions about the need for reforms.
“The position needs to be reformed regardless of how they behave,” said director Tom Freda. “The potentially bad behaviour exemplifies why we need to do it now.”
MICHELLE CARBERT AND KRISTY KIRKUP
The Globe and Mail, July 22, 2020