Don Martin: Entitlement takes flight as Governor General uses jet as cottage pickup service

The flight time from Ottawa to the Mirabel cargo airport, a crow-flying 133 kilometres away, is about 19 minutes by jet.

For the average Canadian coping with a pandemic, that can be the wait time to get into a Costco.

And yet, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette is using a government Challenger, which takes a couple hours of pre-takeoff prep time and almost $5,000 an hour to defy gravity, for pick-ups and drop-offs at Mirabel en route to her Laurentian Mountain cottage. To reach the terminal via her chauffeur-driven car would take less than 90 minutes.

Flight data for 2019 shows Payette made seven pit stops in Mirabel aboard the jet and this has continued in 2020 as Her Excellency retreated to work at her cottage in pandemic isolation, far removed from the risk of encountering any moistly-talking Canadians.

Rideau Hall confirms Payette was picked up at Mirabel for official trips to Halifax, Saskatoon and Trenton in 2020.

However, spokesperson Ashlee Smith insists the Governor General has never summoned the Challenger for personal use and has never used it for travel to Ottawa on ceremonial duties, such as giving royal assent to legislation.

But flight data tracking shows several flights this year leaving Mirabel for Ottawa with some curious departures from two other landing strips in the region – Saint-Jerome and Mont-Laurier – while the jet was bearing the CFC3701 call sign used when Payette is on board. Rideau Hall has no knowledge about those particular flights.

She even took on a flight on May 6 from Brockville, located a 90-minute drive south of Ottawa, directly to Mirabel before the plane returned to Ottawa.

Several flights on the plane to and from Mirabel this year do not have her call sign, which indicates the plane was shuttling staff or dead-heading back to Ottawa.

Now, to be fair, even if Payette was simply commuting to her cottage via taxpayer-fuelled jet, this isn’t technically breaking any rules. But the cost of coping with her cottage relocation, factoring in having a car waiting at Mirabel and stationing her security detail near the cottage, would not be inconsequential.

And you’ve got to wonder why a ceremonial appointment which comes with a sprawling 100,000-square-foot residence in Ottawa, which she still shuns for the much-smaller Rideau House residence (there’s also an official residence in Quebec City’s Citadelle), needs to saddle security and transportation staff with the extra workload caused by holing up at her private Quebec cottage. There’s also the issue of food and other supplies that need to be sent to her from Ottawa.

Flight data does not seem to show any Challenger departures from Ottawa with the Governor General on board for the better part of the last year. Her designated departure and arrival airport is always Mirabel, but that requires shuttling the Challenger from its Ottawa base.

Much like the role itself, this squander of time and money is symbolic of a lofty and costly entitlement by the former astronaut, picked for the vice-regal role by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this was a solo flight of fancy.

But there are numerous other areas – some minor, some unsettling – where Payette has fallen shy of the high standard set by predecessor David Johnston, one of the governor-general greats by any measure.

The first hint of trouble was in 2018 when Payette reportedly balked at the request for giving her royal assent signature to pivotal government bills because she wasn’t given enough notice. That furrowed a lot of brows in the Prime Minister’s Office.

But her refusal to live in Rideau Hall, despite requesting costly solutions to accessibility issues and enhanced security doors to staff offices, remains truly baffling.

And, of course, the most egregious concern are multiple reports of verbal abuse and staff harassment by her and a top aide. Those have triggered a government investigation with psychological support available to those who need it.

Notwithstanding the muted response when Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland deferred on declaring her confidence in the appointment, there’s no talk of asking Payette to step down or firing the top aide implicated in the harassment allegations. Yet.

Even so, a prime minister who repeatedly pledged zero tolerance for harassment in his caucus and public service might have to consider pitching the Queen for a pink slip if serious abuse allegations are upheld in the investigation.

Julie Payette seems doomed to serve as a marginal Governor General at best, with only one year left in the four-year mandate to salvage her reputation and legacy.

For so many reasons, topped by the gall of needing a Challenger to take a 19-minute flight to service her cottage living preference, Payette’s behaviour has truly been out of this world.

That might be the right environment for an astronaut, but it’s toxic for a Governor General.

That’s the bottom line.

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