When Julie Payette had to explain to her son Laurier why she was going to miss his 6th birthday because of work, it was, by all accounts a pretty good reason; she was going to be in space.
In 1999 a team of international astronauts were assigned to go on a 16 day mission to the International Space Station (ISS). That team included Canada’s current Governor General Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette; who became the first female Canadian astronaut to visit the ISS. Ms. Payette is one of the few women on the planet that has experienced “the cold septic smell of space” a surprising moment, she recalls, while depressurizing the ISS air lock and opening the hatch for her fellow astronauts.
Today, as the 29th Governor General of Canada, Julie Payette is a woman of many accomplishments, with a list that may draw glimpses of envy even from the best of us. In addition to the not-so-small feat of becoming an astronaut, Ms. Payette is a mother with one son, an accomplished engineer and scientist, a pilot with over 450 hours of jet flying time, a business woman and former CEO of the Montreal Science Centre, a woman who has sung with choirs and orchestras, can play the piano, is able to converse in six languages, and is Canada’s current Commander-in-Chief.
Just writing the list is exhausting.
At 10 years old, this little French-Canadian girl from Montréal watched astronauts go to space, and in that moment of wonder and amazement she formed a deep desire and a dream that one day she too, would be an astronaut. A lofty goal, no doubt. At that time there were no “Canadian” astronauts, and most role models were men. Even so, this determined little girl somehow grew into a young woman that did not lose sight of that initial vision. For many of us, as children we had dreams to be baseball players or astronauts or famous movie stars. Most parents humour children when they are young, but as they get older those children are met with “reality checks” from well-meaning parents, teachers and counsellors.
When 16 year old Julie Payette applied for a scholarship to study in Great Britain, on her application they asked her what she wanted to be: “I wrote ‘astronaut’. In 1980 there was no such thing as a Canadian astronaut. Here I am 16 and saying, I will, that’s what I’m going to do. To them it was completely ludicrous. They said, “Well clearly you’re not going to make that, so what else would you like to become? “. Clearly.
Although many young people have a dream, Ms. Payette also had something else that was very important; an environment that allowed that dream to evolve. She had parents that believed in her dreams; that supported her. She had parents that didn’t scoff at her aspirations as a teenager, or display that hint of disbelief that can unknowingly show up on a parent’s face. She also had a mother that reinforced the idea to strive high and told her “there is always room for improvement” installing a desire to always reach for excellence. She had a foundation of support that allowed her to persevere: “My parents and family gave me unwavering support in following my childhood dream of becoming a space explorer, they said ‘You can be anything you want. Have a dream, have a goal and objective, and we will support it’ ”.
How many of us, if we were truly honest with ourselves, would respond that way, to our teen-aged daughter telling us her career goal was to become an astronaut?
Data has shown that girls are equally interested in sciences and maths during the grade school years, but once they get to high school, those interests wane. Julie Payette was a curious child who always had questions and contemplations, and her interest in science blossomed when she subscribed to a small science magazine for kids. But for many girls, something happens around the age of 15.
As teenage girls they start to question themselves; whether it’s the transition to adulthood, cultural attitudes, gender role stereotypes or peer pressure, many girls give up science, math and technology-based interests during high school years.
Within our Canadian culture we have started to recognize this important transition phase and are aspiring to put in place programs, and support structures to help young girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to evolve into women who become experts in their field. With programs designed to encourage girls to learn computer coding and technology, and with organizations such as Actua, Canada’s largest STEM outreach network, Canadian girls now have a better chance at becoming scientists, mathematicians, engineers, computer programmers… or astronauts.
As a parent herself, Ms. Payette has always encouraged her one son to follow his own path and discover his own unique desires. “I always told him: Find out what you are good at and what your interests are, and then you have to put effort. You can be anything you want, but have a dream, have a goal and objective, and we will support it.”
Now, Julie Payette is on a different kind of mission. With a staff of 150 at Rideau Hall, as the Governor General of Canada, she maintains a very challenging and demanding schedule filled with formality, with regulated ceremonial events and functions. As the Queen’s representative in Canada, Ms. Payette exercises the duties of head of state. It is the Governor General who summons Parliament, sets out the government’s program by delivering the Speech from the Throne, and gives Royal Assent which makes Acts of Parliament law. As a non-partisan and apolitical figure, she presides over the swearing-in of the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of Canada and Cabinet Ministers. Her position also allows her the authority to exercise power in times of constitutional crisis, including the decision to suspend parliament. Let’s not forget she is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Armed Forces, which includes the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Army.
Ms. Payette is responsible for receiving Royal visitors and foreign dignitaries during their visits to Canada. She also awards military honours, and presents honours to Canadian citizens in recognition of exceptional achievements, including the Order of Canada.
Blossoming from a little girl with a dream and an unwavering family support system, Julie Payette is a woman of accomplishment and gratitude, “I was born in an amazing country, out of an amazing family, where no one said you can’t… and a little girl from Montreal could actually be part of a crew on a space craft.” We as Canadians need to support our girls to strive to install confidence in them. And when they are bold, and take roles of initiative, to reference that child not as a “bossy girl” but as someone with leadership skills and courage. And let us encourage all women to be outspoken about their aspirations, desires and beliefs; even if at times we may demonstrate an opinion that others don’t agree with. For us as Canadian journalists and media outlets, it would be judicious to showcase more female role models; women of grit, determination and accomplishment.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we put the Governor General of Canada, the Right Honourable Julie Payette, on the cover of the 15th anniversary edition of our magazine.