More than $250K spent on Gov. Gen. Julie Payette’s demands for privacy at Rideau Hall

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Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to satisfy Gov. Gen. Julie Payette’s need for privacy at Rideau Hall, but she still hasn’t moved into her official residence almost three years into her five-year mandate. 

CBC News has learned new details about costs the public is incurring to meet Payette’s requirements before she agrees to move in. 

They include almost $140,000, spent studying and designing a private staircase that was never built, and more than $117,500 on a gate and series of doors to keep people away from Payette’s office, according to the National Capital Commission (NCC), which manages the official vice-regal residence.

Those costs go well beyond the usual transition expenses, which normally involve some fresh paint and new furniture, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the project. Those sources asked for confidentiality because they are not authorized to publicly discuss Rideau Hall’s requests. 

They paint a portrait of a Governor General who is uncomfortable with being in the constant presence of staff, RCMP security and, to some extent, the public.

Governors general have to accept a degree of privacy loss when they take on the vice-regal role.

Payette stands next to a shelf featuring memorabilia from her career as an astronaut, in her office at Rideau Hall in December 2018. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Much of the verdant grounds of Rideau Hall are open to the public, who wander freely around what is seen in the national capital as a public park. Family picnics and pick-up football games abound on any particular summer day.

But Payette “wanted to come and go without anyone seeing her,” said one source with knowledge of the project.

According to multiple sources, Payette doesn’t like maintenance workers in her line of sight. Even RCMP paid to protect Payette are no longer allowed to stand directly outside her office door and must hide in a room down the hallway, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter. Only some select staff currently have access to the restricted area by her office.

The NCC says those projects were at the request of Rideau Hall, and are in addition to the $2.4 million the NCC spent on pre-planned renovations in 2018 to the so-called Monck wing which houses a “significant portion of the private quarters and state offices of Rideau Hall.” 

Those renovations included a new heating and cooling system, new furnishings, lighting and $290,000 on the administration bathroom to make it universally accessible.

Payette’s press secretary, Ashlee Smith, suggested it’s not in the public’s interest for the media to ask about Payette’s living arrangements.

“To date, outstanding issues regarding universal accessibility and privacy in the space provided in Rideau Hall for the Governor General have not yet been addressed,” said Smith in a statement to CBC News. “In this day and age, the interest in this seems contrary to respecting the life and privacy of a person.”

Rideau Hall communications manager Julie Rocheleau says there are still “outstanding accessibility, privacy and security concerns being worked out, especially so in light of the July 2nd security breach on the grounds.” Corey Hurren allegedly drove a truck onto the grounds at Rideau Hall on July 2 and set foot toward the prime minister’s home with four loaded firearms, according to RCMP. He’s been charged with 22 criminal offences. 

Payette and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sing the national anthem during a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall on Nov. 20, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Resistance to moving in

It’s been a challenging three years for NCC staff dealing directly with Rideau Hall, according to multiple sources. Staff have been personally confronted by Payette over construction noises and questioned about what they were doing and why they were doing it. Some workers have been belittled and were visibly shaken afterwards, said the sources. 

It’s been widely reported Payette has resisted living at Rideau Hall since taking office in October 2017. Sources have said she doesn’t like the idea of workers and the public coming in and out of the building.

The National Post has reported Payette is a deeply private person at odds with the very public, vice-regal role. 

During the pandemic, Payette has spent time working at her own cottage in Quebec which means RCMP have to travel to the area near Mirabel and stay in hotels, according to a source.

Normally, Payette resides just outside the gates of Rideau Hall at another official guest house, as reported by the Ottawa Citizen. That means Global Affairs can no longer use the roughly 8,500 sq-foot residence to accommodate heads of state and foreign dignitaries. It’s also more expensive to clean and operate the house year round, said one source. 

Damage is seen on a gate leading to Rideau Hall after an armed intruder drove a truck onto the grounds on July 2. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The Globe and Mail wrote Payette originally moved into the guest house due to renovations at Rideau Hall. That work was completed in March 2018, but Payette called for more work to make the building accessible for people with mobility issues, according to the Globe.

Nathan Tidridge, the vice-president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada at Massey College, says it’s important for the Governor General to live at Rideau Hall as intended. He said money is spent maintaining it as the official residence for the Queen’s representative and should be used accordingly.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” said Tidridge. “There’s nothing wrong with Rideau Hall, it’s a beautiful space. It’s important the Governor General be resident there and not just use it as a space for events. For people that visit Rideau Hall it’s important it be seen as a home of the Governor General and not just a place of work.”

“It sets a tone, a symbolic tone … Rideau Hall is our preeminent, constitutional, culture and treaty space within Canada.”

From cat door to staircase

CBC has viewed an internal document summarizing a meeting on Oct. 5, 2018, between Rideau Hall, the Privy Council Office, and the NCC where it was agreed Payette would move into the private quarters by July 1, 2019 at the latest. Part of the understanding was the NCC would complete a series of projects to make the official residence livable for Payette — including the staircase project. 

Early in Payette’s mandate she wanted a door for her cats to be able to exit the living quarters on the second floor and go outside, said sources. The idea then changed into a private exit for Payette.

The NCC hired an architectural firm to draft the plans, which included a small landing area at the top of the stairs where Payette could sit alone outside, according to sources with knowledge of the project. In addition, Rideau Hall asked for a fire safety study which cost $16,500, the NCC said. 

A team of government staff and outside companies spent months working on the project and going through a rigorous approval process to make the addition to the heritage building, according to sources. But the staircase was never built. 

After $138,654 of completed work, the NCC says Rideau Hall “discontinued” the project in April 2019 before construction started. 

The Governor General’s press secretary said it paused the work after learning its total projected cost. The NCC estimated it would cost $271,000.

“After the original design and cost were disclosed to [Rideau Hall] it was decided that further analysis should be undertaken to ensure that any work done would strike a balance between safety and cost effectiveness,” said Smith. 

Payette invests Minnie Grey, from Kuujjuaq, Que. as a Member of the Order of Canada during a ceremony outside Rideau Hall on Sept. 6, 2018. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Access gate, doors 

Rideau Hall also had the NCC hire a company to retrofit two doors in the main building so access cards are needed to enter, and paid another firm more than $72,000 to install an access gate in the hallway leading to Payette’s office. The gate has two glass panes that open and close for select employees.

Multiple sources said the RCMP did not require the project for security reasons since protective services are always with Payette. The force confirmed to CBC News it did not incur any expenses. 

The Governor General’s press secretary said Rideau Hall’s chief security officer did their own assessment and deemed it necessary to monitor and control access to the residence. It installed the system “for the safety and security of all staff,” said Smith. 

“We are pleased to have taken this step, particularly in light of the security breach at Rideau Hall in early July,” said Smith in a statement. 

“Given the security breach … it has become all the more important to evaluate the measures in place, ensuring that all employees and visitors to Rideau Hall can access the grounds and residence without concerns. 

‘Very public role’

Barbara Messamore, an associate professor of History at the University of Fraser Valley and author of a book about Canada’s governors general calls the spending “regrettable” and “troubling.” She says the project should have been called off before that kind of money was spent.

“It’s a great deal of money to make a permanent change to a historic building that’s intended for every governor general who will serve after her,” said Messamore. “The idea of this sort of spending for the comfort of one governor general is regrettable.”

Messamore says she understands Payette’s wish for privacy, but said the role of a governor general is public and so is Rideau Hall. 

“It’s a very public role, you’re working and living in the same quarters,” she said. “You have tourists coming through … I think if you’re somebody with a great need for privacy maybe it isn’t an ideal fit.” 

She said part of the role of the Queen’s representative is to preserve the dignity of the institution. These expenditures and as well as CBC News reporting about the allegations of harassment at the hands of Payette and her second-in-command could affect that dignity, Messamore said.

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