Independent panel completes probe into claims of ‘toxic’ environment at Rideau Hall

An independent consulting firm has completed its review into claims of a toxic environment and workplace harassment at Rideau Hall and sources briefed on the report say the report is scathing.

Sources said the negative findings in the report could make it difficult for Julie Payette to remain in her role as Governor General. The Globe and Mail has also reported that the report has been completed and is damning in nature.

Sources have also told CBC that Secretary to the Governor General Assunta Di Lorenzo, who has also faced allegations of harassing employees, recently hired a lawyer.

CBC is not naming the sources as they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The head of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, Dominic LeBlanc, is overseeing the review and is expected to provide recommendations for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about how to respond. 

Experts agree when a governor general is embroiled in controversy and the government would like them to depart, the most likely solution would be a resignation following the prime minister’s discreet suggestion. If the governor general did not accept that resignation, the prime minister could turn to Buckingham Palace to appoint a new governor general.

The Privy Council Office launched the unprecedented third-party review in July in response to a CBC News report featuring a dozen public servants and former employees confidentially claiming Payette had belittled, berated and publicly humiliated Rideau Hall staff. Di Lorenzo, the Governor General’s longtime friend and second-in-command, is also accused of bullying staff. 

Payette tweeted two days after the story aired that she was “deeply concerned about the media reports,” and she “takes harassment and workplace issues very seriously and I am in full agreement and welcome the independent review.”

As of Jan. 5, Rideau Hall had spent more than $150,000 in public funds on legal representation in response to the allegations of a toxic workplace, including a former Supreme Court justice for the Governor General and Blakes law firm for the institution.

That sum is larger than the original value of the contract the federal government entered into to hire Quintet Consulting to conduct the review. The private firm was hired on an $88,325 contract in Sept. 2020. 

Significantly more than 50 people voluntarily took part in the review including current and former staff at Rideau Hall, as well as other government departments that work closely with the Governor General and her office including RCMP, Global Affairs, and the National Capital Commission. 

The number of participants grew higher than the government anticipated, causing the review to take longer than originally scheduled. 

Reports of ‘tantrums’ on foreign trips

Last year, former staffers described to CBC News accounts of Payette regularly throwing tantrums in the office and on foreign trips, openly criticizing people’s work to the point where they were reduced to tears, and tossing an employee’s work aside and calling it “shit.” Employees have been seen leaving her office with tears in their eyes or crying in their vehicles. 

Sources say Payette is known for dropping what they call “explosions” or “bursts of emotion” on staff at Rideau Hall 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.

CBC News has now spoken to more than 20 public servants confidentially with direct knowledge and former employees who experienced or witnessed the treatment. They spoke on the condition they not be named 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.

One source described the atmosphere at Rideau Hall as going from one of the most collegial workplaces that public servants spent their entire careers at to a “house of horrors” that longtime employees were leaving in droves.

Five executives left Payette’s office in 2018 within months over their treatment, the communications department cleared out during the pandemic, and Di Lorenzo has had at least four executive assistants leave, according to sources. In the past month, another series of staff members departed.

“She screams and humiliates staff in front of others,” one former employee told CBC News in July 2020. “It’s verbal abuse. In no world is it OK to treat people that way.”

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.

In one four-month period, roughly two dozen people reported abusive conduct by Payette or Di Lorenzo to management, according to government sources. Former employees complain the system protects the alleged abusers and feared it would ruin their career to file an official complaint since it’s against the most powerful individuals in Canada. 

Claims of harassment of employees

Di Lorenzo, is also accused of harassing employees and calling some “lazy” and “incompetent.”

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 years into the job — which is typically filled by a seasoned public servant — and still doesn’t understand how the public service works.

“[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.”

CBC News has also reported Payette has faced similar claims at past workplaces, but the prime minister and his officials didn’t conduct checks with her past employers before appointing her as Governor General. Payette was given severance of roughly $200,000 when she resigned from the Montreal Science Centre in 2016 following complaints about her treatment of employees, say multiple sources at Canada Lands Company, the crown corporation that employed her. In 2017, Payette left the Canadian Olympic Committee after two internal investigations into her treatment of staff including verbal harassment, sources with that organization said.

Rideau Hall’s legal fees totalling more than $150,0000

The Governor General retained the services of former Supreme Court of Canada justice Michel Bastarache as “constitutional adviser” and paid him $41,488. Law firm Blakes is also assisting the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General (OSGG) in the review process and has been paid $111,179, and the contract has been amended to bill up to $149,500. 

Rideau Hall hired former NDP national director Karl Bélanger and his firm, Traxxion Strategies, in August to provide strategic communications counsel and media relations support to Payette, and so far has paid him $9,450. 

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