Governor General Julie Payette’s speech at the CSPC
On November 1, Governor General of Canada Julie Payette made a speech at the 9th Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa. She touched on the topics of importance to science, and the effects of open access to information and disinformation. However, the Governor General’s rebuke of certain beliefs during her speech has made it controversial. She criticized astrology, alternative medicine, those who still question climate change and the belief of divine intervention in the creation of human life.
Of course, some of the Governor General’s criticisms are valid. The vast number of scientific studies that confirm that climate change exists and that it is due to the actions of humans should make it an undisputed matter. In fact, even Syria has now signed the Paris Climate Agreement. This means that every country but one has acknowledged the threat that climate change presents to our planet today. Not to mention the Governor General’s views are nothing less than what would be expected in front of a crowd of those who work in science at a conference on scientific policy. If there was ever a time to make such a statement, she picked the proper setting. And who better to voice these comments but Julie Payette, an engineer who has taken part in two missions to space with many distinctions to her name.
On the other hand, it is worrisome that the Queen’s Canadian representative is seemingly picking a side in political issues. The office she holds is not one in which she is expected to share her political views and make a stance, but rather one where she represents the largely apolitical monarchy. She has jeopardized her impartiality with her remarks, which may not bode well when the time comes to make decisions or advise the Prime Minister on complex political issues and, in particular, issues involving the beliefs she denounced. This opens the floor to potential criticisms of bias for particular groups of others, especially in regards to religion and culture. This is seriously problematic for a country that prides itself on freedom to practice any faith and cultural practice.
Furthermore, there is plenty of room for religion in science. It is possible to believe in or research scientific explanations for how the world works while practicing Christianity, Islam, or any other faith. That fact should be obvious to the Governor General, given she is the representative for the royal family who itself is vocal about the effects of climate change while simultaneously being the head of the Church of England. What is more, criticizing alternative medicine bypasses criticizing beliefs and moves into criticizing cultural practices such as those of certain Indigenous peoples or of other cultures belonging to countries such as China or India.
Another problem with the Governor General’s speech was her condescending tone while making these criticisms. She made it sound as if anyone who holds beliefs outside of the science realm is lacking in intelligence. It is one thing to support credible advancements in technology, science and medicine, but it is another to belittle people and lessen the importance of their beliefs. When science is treated as the only ideology worth upholding, it prevents itself from receiving criticism and engaging in debates over problematic scientific issues that may be needed.
While the Governor General’s speech does reflect the views widely held within the scientific and technological sectors of Canada, she should be mindful of the beliefs of all Canadians. If she continues to pick sides on political issues, her suitability to a role that demands impartiality should be questioned. One might even suggest that the controversy her speech has caused is an indication that it may be time that Canadians should be able to vote for the Governor General instead of them being appointed.