Gov. Gen. Julie Payette has created a toxic environment at Rideau Hall by verbally harassing employees to the point where some have been reduced to tears or have left the office altogether, sources tell CBC News.
Four members of Payette's communications team have departed during the pandemic period alone. A fifth person is leaving this week and another two have taken leaves of absence. It's just the latest wave of staff to quietly transfer out of the small office in response to mistreatment during Payette's mandate, multiple sources said.
"This has gone from being one of the most collegial and enjoyable work environments for many of the staff to being a house of horrors," said one government source. "It's bullying and harassment at its worst."
CBC News spoke to a dozen sources with direct knowledge of the office during Payette's mandate. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared they could lose their jobs or their careers could suffer. Many of the sources are still in the public service, while others are former Rideau Hall employees.
The sources say Payette has yelled at, belittled and publicly humiliated employees. They accuse her of throwing tantrums in the office and, on one occasion, tossing an employee's work aside and calling it "shit."
On a single day, multiple people were seen leaving Payette's office with tears in their eyes after private meetings with the Governor General, said one source. In another instance, a staff member was spotted crying in their car.
"She screams and humiliates staff in front of others," said a former employee. "It's verbal abuse. In no world is it OK to treat people that way."
Payette's secretary and longtime friend, Assunta Di Lorenzo, is also accused of harassing employees and calling some "lazy" and "incompetent."
"[Di Lorenzo is] also a bully," said a source. "When confronted with something she's unsure of, instead of giving you the benefit of the doubt, she comes at you as a pit bull."
Reporting in 'stark contrast' to reality, says Rideau Hall
In a statement issued to CBC News, Rideau Hall said Payette and the management of the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General "strongly" believe "in the importance of a healthy workplace, we have taken many steps to foster this, we will continue to do so and will work at constantly improving."
"We deeply regret this reporting, which is in stark contrast to the reality of working at the OSGG, and obscures the important work done by our dedicated staff in honouring, representing, and showcasing Canadians," said Ashlee Smith, press secretary to the Governor General.
The Prime Minister's Office said all Canadians have to work in a "healthy, respectful and safe environment," but referred CBC's questions to Rideau Hall.
"Our government is committed to ensuring that all federally-regulated workplaces are free from harassment of any kind," said PMO press secretary Ann-Clara Vaillancourt.
Payette's trailblazing career
Payette was appointed Governor General on the advice of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in October 2017. She is just over half way through her mandate, which will end in October 2022 if it's not extended.
Payette is a Montreal-born trailblazer — a former astronaut who's been to space twice and is also a computer engineer, pilot, academic, musician and executive.
Although Payette's role as the Queen's representative in Canada is mostly ceremonial, the vice-regal position can be an important one in a minority government situation. Payette is bound by constitutional convention to follow the advice of the prime minister if the PM requests a dissolution or prorogation of Parliament, but she is empowered to dismiss a government that has been defeated on a vote of confidence if it refuses to step aside.
The National Post has written extensively about Payette's struggle to adapt to her new public role. The newspaper reported that Payette is a deeply private person who is involved in the minutia of administration, has pushed back against protocol and has cut down her workload.
Rideau Hall among the worst in public service for harassment
As reported by Maclean's magazine, the 2019 federal Public Service Employee Survey said that 22 per cent of respondents working for Rideau Hall claimed to have experienced harassment, down from 25 per cent in 2018 — still the third-highest harassment level reported by any federal department or agency.
The annual survey offers the only publicly available data on the extent of harassment in the bureaucracy.
In 2019, just over one-in-five of the 126 Rideau Hall employees who responded to the survey reported having been victims of harassment on the job over a 12-month period.
Of those Rideau Hall employees who reported harassment, 74 per cent attributed it to individuals with authority over them.
Half of the 28 self-reported victims said they were humiliated, 47 per cent reported dealing with someone exerting excessive control, 40 per cent felt excluded or ignored, and 44 per cent said they dealt with aggressive behaviour.
"These are not one-time issues," said a government source. "This is a constant assault upon those who work in and around and for the Governor General, Madame Payette.
"It's beyond anything that a public servant or anyone working for an institution should have to endure."
Humiliating huddles on planes
The people who report directly to Payette — managers, the communications team, those involved in programming and those who travel with Payette — bear the brunt of the harassment, said many sources. Pantry workers and NCC maintenance staff also have been left visibly upset or shaken after being questioned directly by Payette.
In one four-month period, roughly two dozen people reported abusive conduct by Payette or Di Lorenzo to management, according to government sources.
The harassment often happens on a one-to-one basis; any specific examples reported by CBC News could be traced back to sources. But sources have described broader patterns in Payette's alleged behaviour toward staff.
Watch: Allegations of bullying and harrassment in Gov. Gen. Julie Payette's office:
Part of Payette's job is to attend state visits around the world to meet with dignitaries and build on Canada's international ties. Sources claim that travel brings out the worst in Payette. Multiple sources described the Governor General routinely complaining of being tired, underfed and overworked.
Sources say Payette often uses flights home from trips abroad to criticize staff in front of their peers over what she sees as their shortcomings. Payette frequently asks staff members to huddle around her on the plane for a debriefing, then verbally attacks employees over what she considers to be poor work, said sources.
Several sources said such in-flight debriefs can last hours. Employees have been seen crying in their vehicles on the way home, said sources.
"When you see people in tears, something is not right," a former employee told CBC.
Sources say Payette is known for dropping what they call "explosions," "tantrums" or "bursts of emotion" on staff at Rideau Hall. Such outbursts are often centred around Payette being upset with the quality of someone's work and the belief that she has to do everything herself because everyone else is incompetent.
"She needs to control absolutely everything," said one government source. "If things don't go the way she wants it to go, she needs to find someone responsible for it."
'A victim at every meeting'
During meetings with staff, sources said, Payette has been known to "grill" employees on files unrelated to the meeting topic.
"There was always that level of criticism and I would say in almost every meeting somebody was berated," said one former employee. "There was, I'll go as far to say, a victim at every meeting."
At the beginning of her mandate, sources said, Payette also put staff on the spot by quizzing them about outer space — asking them to name all the planets in the solar system, for example, or to state the distance between the sun and the moon.
"She loves these gotcha moments," said one government source. "She's just smarter than you and she likes to let you know that."
Most sources said Payette often makes decisions with the help of a very small inner circle that includes Di Lorenzo.
A former lawyer and executive in Montreal, Di Lorenzo is supposed to keep Payette's office running smoothly and effectively. Multiple sources said Di Lorenzo is struggling more than two years into the job — which is typically filled by a seasoned public servant — and still doesn't understand how the public service works.
Watch: Rideau Hall work environment a 'house of horrors,' says government source
The government had to create an entirely new position to assist Di Lorenzo — an associate secretary who is a veteran public servant.
Sources said Di Lorenzo has been seen yelling at Rideau Hall workers and claiming that she has to do everything for everyone.
"The way [Di Lorenzo] spoke to people was really harsh," said a former employee. "It was like a punch every time she spoke to someone. She wasn't a team player. She gets over-involved and tries to do everyone's jobs for them but doesn't know what she's doing."
"They will bully you until you either agree or leave," said a government source. "It's bullying and harassment at its worst."
High staff turnover
Di Lorenzo has had at least four executive assistants, according to sources in the public service. Payette has rotated through three executive assistants during her time at Rideau Hall — including one who served three past governors-general.
Five executives also left Payette's office in 2018 within a three-month period over their treatment on the job, sources said.
"It's just very clear everybody was afraid to speak up," said one former employee.
One worker who left Rideau Hall citing harassment said the job wasn't worth the damage it did to their self-worth.
"It's not just a matter of bad workplace dynamics," said the source. "There's actual harassment and abuse ... It was just so tense that ... I almost just wanted to hide the whole time I was there.
"Life's too short. I don't want to come to work in the morning and spend the day feeling like I'm going to cry or not feeling like I could speak up."
In the statement to CBC News, the Governor General's press secretary said Rideau Hall has a lower than average employee turnover rate when compared to other federal departments.
"Our staff take great pride in their work and enjoy a challenging and dynamic workplace," said Smith.
"In fact, the OSGG has a lower-than-average employee turnover when compared to other federal departments. One of the benefits of the federal public service is that individuals have the ability to move across different departments, seek promotions, and gain new and valuable career experiences, something that is personally encouraged by the Governor General, who believes that career growth and opportunity are vitally important."
One source defended Payette, saying she has high standards and had reasons for her disappointment in staff. The source said Payette has approached the job on a much more personal level than past governors general, citing her decision to bike with the public on Canada Day in defiance of typical safety protocols.
The Globe and Mail has reported Payette has been at odds with the RCMP over security measures in the past.
A lack of oversight and safeguards
The harassment claims raise questions about the degree of oversight and accountability at Rideau Hall. The office benefits from Crown privileges and is exempt from access to information laws.
Like other federal employees, the Governor General's staff members can talk in confidence to an ombudsman with Public Services Procurement Canada. But it's not part of the ombudsman's mandate to register complaints or launch investigations. At most, the ombudsman can raise issues to the most senior person within the department — in this case, Di Lorenzo.
Watch: Former Rideau Hall employee says colleagues were reduced to tears by criticism
Employees can turn to Rideau Hall's own human resources office, but it's a closed loop: the complaints go to Di Lorenzo, who reports to the Governor General.
"It's soul-destroying," said one source. "There's no one to complain to. There's no recourse. There's no one to report to without getting yourself into a reasonable amount of trouble or potentially losing your job."
Payette's press secretary defended Rideau Hall's HR process and said no formal complaints regarding harassment have been made.
"We are proud of our stringent internal processes for our employees to voice concerns, through the staffing of a robust and accessible human resources department, an independent ombudsman, in addition to maintaining excellent relationships with the unions that represent our employees, whom have additional processes for the protection and support of federal public servants," said Smith.
Sources who spoke with the CBC said, however, that in some cases managers have told staff there isn't anything they can do about the harassment because they're victims of that same harassment.
Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor at Carleton University and an expert on the Westminster parliamentary system, said Canadians would benefit from greater transparency in vice regal offices like Rideau Hall.
"That's a long-standing issue that we've had," he said.
In fact, he said, the one person who could intervene and talk to Payette about human resource matters is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
"The prime minister is responsible and accountable for all acts of the Governor General and everything that happens at Rideau Hall," said Lagassé.
"If there is concern about how the office is operating, that would have to come from the prime minister to the Governor General and a remedy would be found between them and their offices."
Full text of the statement from the office of the Governor General:
The Governor General and the management of the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General (OSGG) strongly believe in the importance of a healthy workplace, we have taken many steps to foster this, we will continue to do so and will work at constantly improving. We deeply regret this reporting, which is in stark contrast to the reality of working at the OSGG, and obscures the important work done by our dedicated staff in honouring, representing, and showcasing Canadians. We take these matters very seriously, and we are proud of our stringent internal processes for our employees to voice concerns, through the staffing of a robust and accessible human resources department, an independent ombudsman, in addition to maintaining excellent relationships with the unions that represent our employees, whom have additional processes for the protection and support of federal public servants. Since the beginning of the mandate, no formal complaint regarding harassment has been made through any of these channels. Our staff take great pride in their work, and enjoy a challenging and dynamic workplace. In fact, the OSGG has a lower than average employee turnover when compared to other federal departments. One of the benefits of the federal public service is that individuals have the ability to move across different departments, seek promotions, and gain new and valuable career experiences, something that is personally encouraged by the Governor General, who believes that career growth and opportunity are vitally important. We are strongly committed to the wellbeing of our staff and will remain so.