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Governor-General 101: Don’t insult Canadians

David Mulroney is president of the University of St. Michael's College.

The succession to the throne of King George V in 1910 is memorable not so much for what the new monarch said as for what he didn't say. In the wake of activism by Catholics, including many Canadians, throughout the empire, the King broke with tradition by abandoning a nasty anti-Catholic declaration that his predecessors had dutifully intoned for more than two centuries. The formula, which attacked (and misinterpreted) Catholic beliefs about the mass, the Virgin Mary and the sacrament of the Eucharist, was replaced by a text, still in use today, that simply affirms the Protestant succession.

Opinion: Governor-General Payette jeopardized her neutrality with secular spiel to scientists

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The change owes much to then British prime minister H. H. Asquith's astute reading of the political tea leaves. He understood the importance of keeping a religiously diverse empire united as war clouds gathered over Europe. But the change also marked a milestone in the steady evolution of democratic governance in Britain and its dominions. It advanced the idea that, in a healthy society, the respect that necessarily links the ruler to those who are ruled flows both ways.

Put bluntly, it's not okay for the King to insult his subjects.

Governor-General Julie Payette takes aim at bad science (The Canadian Press)

Julie Payette, newly installed as the Queen's representative in Canada, seems to have missed this page in her briefing book. In a recent speech, she mocked a short list of what she considers to be modern heresies. Aside from the surprising fact the Governor-General would choose to commence her time in office with an attack on some of her fellow Canadians, the comments are particularly noteworthy because her targets appear to include the many Canadians who are religious believers.

During one of her first speeches in the role, the Governor-General adopted a mocking tone to share with a room of scientists in Ottawa last week her observation that, as incredible as it might sound, some people have the temerity to continue to question how life began: "Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government…we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process." She continued with an observation that was as gratuitous as it was cruel: "And so many people – I'm sure you know many of them – still believe, want to believe, that maybe taking a sugar pill will cure cancer, if you will it!"

Ms. Payette seems to be endorsing a form of what is commonly referred to as scientism, the notion that the only valid means of understanding anything and everything is via science and the scientific method. The reasoning here is more than a little circular. If our understanding of the world is limited to what is measurable and quantifiable, it is not surprising that we are forced to deny the possibility of the transcendent. This leaves no room for the proposition that we can approach truth through disciplines like philosophy and theology, or that we might be similarly enlightened by our appreciation of art, literature or music.

The Governor-General also seems to be dismissing the possibility that human reason might itself lead us to ask whether the answer to that ultimate question, why there is something rather than nothing, is adequately addressed by a form of causation that she describes as "random."

We should also acknowledge that scientism itself has a grim history when conscripted by modern governments. As the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century showed, this can lead to a ruthless utilitarianism that strips men and women of their humanity. Even Canada was not exempt from an early 20th-century flirtation with eugenics, a kind of selective breeding that aimed to eliminate classes of people deemed undesirable. Its proponents, some of whom are still lionized today, invoked science to mask racism and intolerance. Indeed, the canard that the Catholic Church, which gave birth to the modern university, is somehow against science, gained new credence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries precisely because of Rome's principled and public opposition to eugenics.

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It is also disappointing that, in the wake of the Governor-General's remarks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended her in the name of science, rather than coming to the defence of the many Canadians who are troubled by what she said. He seems oblivious to the fact that the very virtues he himself so regularly extols – things like compassion, tolerance and inclusivity – owe far more to Mother Teresa and Pope Francis than they do to Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins.

More puzzling, you would think that, as a politician, Mr. Trudeau would know that denigrating a large swath of the electorate – think here of Hillary Clinton and her "basket of deplorables"– is a bad idea.

Former governor-general David Johnston, himself a distinguished scholar, was wonderfully able to connect with Canadians, regardless of their beliefs. Ms. Payette could take a lesson from him and, for that matter, from King George V. Mr. Trudeau might want to brush up on his Asquith.

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