Julie Payette: Engineer, musician, astronaut and now, governor-general
Friday, July 14, 2017

In the late 1980s, Julie Payette asked Graeme Hirst, a computer specialist at the University of Toronto, if she could take one of his courses. The answer was no. Ms. Payette was a graduate student in computer engineering and Prof. Hirst’s field was computer science; she lacked the necessary prerequisites, he told her.

But Ms. Payette “does not take no for an answer,” he recalled Thursday. Not only did she take the course, filling in the prerequisites in her spare time, Prof. Hirst ended up co-supervising her master’s thesis in the area of computational linguistics.

“Brilliant … hard-working … a bit intense,” said Prof. Hirst, describing a student who excelled at whatever she turned her hand to. She was, he thought, a natural choice for Canada’s space program in the 1990s. And he believes she is a natural choice to be Canada’s next governor-general.

 

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Being an astronaut is perfect training for being a governor-general. Both must serve as an ambassador for Canada to the world and to Canadians themselves. And both may be called upon to make difficult choices under considerable pressure. Ms. Payette shone in these tasks as an astronaut and will as well as the Queen’s representative in Canada, predicted Prof. Michael Stumm, who taught Ms. Payette at U of T. “She’ll be stupendous.”

Born in Montreal in 1963, the daughter of a theatre accountant and engineer, Ms. Payette was a stellar student at McGill University, where she came to the attention of Claude Guay, an IBM executive then and now. He hired the student intern after she graduated. “It was clear right away that we had a very gifted individual,” Mr. Guay recalls. “People would rave about the kind of work that she would do. … We were actually very disappointed when she left.”

In Toronto, as well as getting a graduate degree in engineering, Ms. Payette sang for three years in the choir of Tafelmusik, the acclaimed baroque chamber orchestra. She took a copy of their recording of Handel’s Messiahwith her into space, “which was very cool,” said choir director Ivars Taurins. Is she competitive? When Mr. Taurins told Ms. Payette that she would be singing with the second, rather than the first, sopranos for Bach’s Mass in B Minor, she practically cried.

Upon graduation, Ms. Payette worked with IBM in Zurich and Bell-Northern Research in Montreal, before becoming one of four chosen from more than 5,000 applicants in 1992 to become an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency. Marc Garneau, who was one of Canada’s first astronauts, was on the committee that selected her.

“It was a no-brainer to choose her back then,” said Mr. Garneau, who is now the federal Minister of Transport.

Ms. Payette had an impressive background in science and engineering, she was multilingual, a lover of the arts – an articulate, cosmopolitan personality who was curious about the world. “I couldn’t be more pleased” by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to recommend Ms. Payette as governor-general, he said in an interview. “It’s an inspired choice.”

As part of her training, Ms. Payette learned Russian (she is also conversant in Spanish, Italian and German and idiomatic in English and French) and earned a pilot’s licence. She flew in 1999 in the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station, and again in Endeavour in 2009. From 2000 to 2007 she was chief astronaut of the Canadian Space Agency.

After leaving the agency in 2013, she spent three years as chief operating officer of the Montreal Science Centre, leaving abruptly in 2016. She has also served on various boards, including a board of advisers at McGill’s faculty of engineering. “She’s been looking at science education for quite some time,” said Benoit Boulet, the faculty’s associate dean, and pays particular attention to encouraging women to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

Personally, Ms. Payette is a “kind, gracious, people kind of person,” Prof. Hirst said. “She was like that as a student and she was like that as an astronaut as well.”

She can be very direct and demanding, setting high standards, not only for herself, but for those she works with. In 2011, Ms. Payette spent a year at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “She’s a real person,” says David Biette, who was director of the Canada Institute at the time. “She’s not this perfect little butterfly who went up in space … I don’t think she has a lot of patience for bullshit.”

Though the public role of astronaut translates easily into the equivalent role of governor-general, Ms. Payette’s background is in science rather than law. This could leave her in unfamiliar territory when confronted with a challenge, such as the one that governor-general Michaëlle Jean, a former broadcaster, faced in 2008, when Stephen Harper recommended that Parliament be prorogued on the cusp of what would have been his government’s defeat in the Commons. (She accepted his advice.) B.C. Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon, a former rancher, faced a similar decision in June when Premier Christy Clark, whose government had been defeated on its Throne Speech, recommended she call an election. (Ms. Guichon declined the advice and turned to NDP Leader John Horgan to form a government.)

That said, governors-general and lieutenant-governors have legal scholars to advise them when such situations occur. And ultimately, “a lot of these things are common sense,” Prof. Stumm observes. “And I can tell you that Julie has a tremendous amount of common sense.”

 

11 facts about Julie Payette:

Born

Oct. 20, 1963, Montreal

Mother

Jacqueline, a theatre accountant

Father

André, an engineer

Education

International baccalaureate from United World College of the Atlantic in South Wales (1982)

Bachelor of electrical engineering, McGill (1986)

Master of applied science in electrical and computer engineering, Toronto (1990)

Joined Canadian Space Agency astronaut program

1992

First flight

STS-96, a 10-day mission aboard Space Shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station (ISS), May 27-June 6, 1999. First Canadian to board ISS.

Second flight

STS 127, a 16-day mission aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station, July 15-31, 2009. Served as flight engineer and mission specialist 2.

Marital status

Single mother, 14-year-old son

Music

Plays flute and piano, sang in choirs of Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Tafelmusik

Languages

French and English (fluent); Russian, German Italian and Spanish (conversant)

Also

Enjoys scuba diving, racquet sports, skiing, running. Has a pilot’s licence.

With files from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal.

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Source:The Globe and Mail