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Julie Payette says being governor-general a chance to serve Canada ‘on Earth’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as former astronaut, and Governor General designate, Julie Payette,talks to reporters, on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Thursday July 13, 2017.


Former astronaut Julie Payette said she is looking forward to again serving her country – albeit this time on Earth – as she gets ready to promote science and knowledge as Canada's 29th governor-general.

After going on two space-shuttle missions in 1999 and 2009, Ms. Payette plans to use her position to inspire Canadians to embody core values of "tolerance, openness and working together."

"It is clear that I am a person who believes fundamentally in facts, evidence, data and science, which supports decision-making and allows us to function as a society based on knowledge," the 53-year-old said after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed her appointment.

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From the archives: How Julie Payette's childhood dreams sent her into orbit

Ms. Payette added that she will develop a full agenda in time for her installation in early fall, pointing out she is "pretty new to the job."

"I am very happy to have a second chance to represent Canada. I have done so for years as an astronaut in outer space, and now I have the chance to do so again, but this time on Earth," she said.

Mr. Trudeau asked Ms. Payette during a private meeting in Montreal in June whether she wanted to return to public life and move to Rideau Hall. A single mother, she took a few days to consult with her 14-year-old son before agreeing to serve as the successor to David Johnston.

Appointing a governor-general is the Prime Minister's prerogative, and federal officials said all it takes is one look at Ms. Payette's impressive CV to understand why she was perfect for the job. On Thursday, Mr. Trudeau praised Ms. Payette for dedicating her life to "discovery, to dreaming big and to always staying focused on the things that matter most."

While many celebrated Ms. Payette's appointment, it still generated questions about the federal government's failure to name an aboriginal as the Queen's representative in Canada.

"Some Canadians may be disappointed that today we are not celebrating the appointment of Canada's first governor-general from First Nation, Inuit, or Métis descent, and I understand and sympathize with those feelings," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said.

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Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Ms. Payette must continue the work of her predecessors, who have built strong relations with First Nations.

"There are some who were calling for an Indigenous governor-general and, while we may see that in our lifetime, we know that whoever assumes this position has a duty to uphold the honour of the Crown in all their work, and that includes the long-standing relationship with First Nations," Mr. Bellegarde said.

Ms. Payette responded to questions on the controversy by pointing to her own long lineage in Canada and her intention to represent all Canadians in her new duties.

"As a 12th-generation Canadian, I'm exactly just that, a Canadian, and I am here to serve all Canadians of all backgrounds, of all walks of life, either new or not so new. It will be my pleasure," she said.

Mr. Trudeau went on to explain why he picked Ms. Payette, a francophone woman from Montreal, instead of an aboriginal candidate, as many had hoped.

"Reconciliation isn't just about Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government, it involves non-Indigenous Canadians as well," Mr. Trudeau said. "I know Ms. Payette will be engaged in the process of reconciliation, inclusion and the creation of opportunities for all in this country."

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Mr. Trudeau said that during a trip to Scotland earlier this month, the Queen "graciously approved the appointment of Ms. Julie Payette as the next governor-general of Canada."

"When I was studying engineering, there was a big poster of Julie on the wall of one of our classes, so I have long known and admired her," Mr. Trudeau said Thursday. "When we sat down a few weeks ago … we talked about public service, family, responsibilities, our hopes for the country, and it quickly became clear that in terms of values, approach and priorities, I could have profound trust in her to do this job."

Reaction to Ms. Payette's appointment has been largely positive.

"As the representative of the Crown in Canada, the governor-general's role is to perform the Queen's duties as laid out by the Constitution on her behalf. It is a critical non-partisan role that can have a direct effect on the stability of Canada's government. Ms. Payette will have the full confidence of our Conservative caucus," said Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

Ms. Payette spent a total of 611 hours in space aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1999 and Endeavour in 2009. She operated the Canadarm and was the first Canadian astronaut to board the International Space Station.

Ms. Payette is fluently bilingual in French and English, speaks four other languages and is a licensed pilot. According to a Montreal newspaper, Ms. Payette's favourite coffee mug has the following inscription: "Failure is not an option."

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