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Shaping Canada from the sidelines

By Christopher Guly      

How Governor General David Johnston, possessing undefined powers and little room for public opinion, sculpted a smarter, kinder country by being “evolutionary rather than revolutionary.”

Governor General David Johnston laughs while telling a story to P&I reporter Chris Guly at Rideau Hall. P&I Photograph by Jake Wright
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P&I Photographs by Jake Wright

There are about 170 rooms in Rideau Hall, but Governor General David Johnston has his favourite: the library.

It’s dimly lit, with comfortable armchairs and two large walls lined with books. It is here that Canada’s 28th Governor General, Ontario-born and raised, indulges in his passion for prose.

“Leave me here for two weeks with sandwiches and I’m all set,” he jokes.

Johnston has, to date, written or co-written more than 25 books, several of them on securities regulation or information technology law; his specialties during his 44-year career in academia as a law professor and dean.

But it is his latest book — and his first since becoming the Queen’s federal vice-regal representative nearly six years ago — that is his most personal.

The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation, published this year by Signal/McClelland and Stewart, is a collection of letters written to Canadians and friends of Canada. Some recipients are from the past, such as his predecessors Roland Michener and Lord Tweedsmuir, but most from the present, ranging from superstar chanteuse Céline Dion to astronaut Chris Hadfield.


Governor General David Johnston’s new book, The Idea of Canada: Letters to a nation. (Photograph courtesy of the Governor General’s office)

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and honourary Canadian the Aga Khan got notes, too.

In The Idea of Canada, Johnston, who turned 75 on June 28, expresses a deep passion for the country, but also reveals the lawyerly thoughts of an intellectual unafraid to tackle tough subjects.

His longest letter, which fills 20 pages, concerns an area familiar to him: the law. Johnston addresses the 27 clerks of the Supreme Court of Canada specifically, but the letter acts as a message to an entire profession challenged by long delays in the courts; an erosion of public trust; unaffordable legal fees; and the need for work-life balance where a “harsh scorecard” reveals that “few firms count women among their senior partners.”

Johnston is delicate, but direct, with the words he writes — and speaks.

In his first conversation with P&I, he didn’t shrink from any topics raised.

Regarding his role

As governor general, Johnston possesses the power to choose a prime minister in a minority government situation and to always ensure that there is a prime minister who has the confidence of the House of Commons, as well as to summon, dissolve or prorogue Parliament. But these are unwritten conventions, and Johnston believes that it may be time to change that.

“We have a responsibility to try to make our systems of government more understandable to the public at large, especially to young people,” he says. “I would be very much in favour of publicizing more of what is still unwritten but practised about the Canadian Constitution.”

When he was named governor general, and as recently as last year when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper extended his five-year term until next September, Johnston’s expertise in constitutional law was highlighted as being an asset in the event a federal election resulted in a minority government.

“That’s a bit of a myth,” says Mr. Johnston, who never taught constitutional law, but studied it at the University of Cambridge while obtaining one of two law degrees. The other was from Queen’s University.

Johnston had a minority government briefly under his watch.

Governor General David Johnston in the greenhouse at Rideau Hall. (P&I Photograph by Jake Wright)

“When Mr. Harper’s government came in with a majority [in 2011], he shook my hand at the door and said, ‘It’s great to meet the second-most relieved man in the country,’ and I said, ‘Don’t be so sure,’” recalls Johnston with a laugh.

He now works alongside another majority government following last fall’s Liberal landslide under Justin Trudeau, a man Johnston has known since the Prime Minister was a boy in the late 1970s.

At the time, Johnston served as principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University, and he and his wife, Sharon, had a cottage in the Laurentians adjacent to Pierre Trudeau’s. Both families and their children skied together. Prime Minister Trudeau also received his undergraduate degree in English literature from McGill during Mr. Johnston’s term as university principal.

The Governor General remembers Justin Trudeau and his principal secretary, Gerald Butts, as being “strong and very competitive debaters” at McGill, and is impressed with the Prime Minister’s rapport with young people.

“He has obviously led his party very well in a very competitive arena,” he says. “He’s a good role model.”

Regarding partisanship

As he did with Harper, the governor general meets with Prime Minister Trudeau about once a month. “That’s an attractive custom,” Johnston explains, “to be as supportive as one can and provide an opportunity for the prime minister to probably speak more frankly than he could in other circumstances.”

Johnston explains that his conversations with Trudeau are confidential, and tend to focus on long-term issues.

Those meetings are crucial, according to Canadian historian Jacques Monet, a Jesuit priest who spent three years helping to set up the archives at Rideau Hall towards the end of Jules Léger’s term as Governor General and in the early days of Edward Schreyer’s.

“The Governor General is one of the best informed people in the country,” says Monet, who sat on the ad-hoc committee then-prime minister Harper created to select a governor general—resulting in Johnston’s appointment in 2010.

Monet, who was also a permanent member of the first-ever advisory panel the Harper government established to choose candidates for vice-regal positions, says that Canadians “speak more freely” to the Governor General than they would to an elected official because they know their views will be conveyed to the prime minister without the influence of political considerations or opinion polls.

Monet says that conveying public comments and opinions is part of the Governor General’s constitutional duties “to advise, to encourage, and to warn” the prime minister.

The governor general is also to remain apolitical and non-partisan, and that’s not always easy.

“You have to work at it, because each of us has our own predilections and our own philosophies,” says Johnston, who faced some criticism in April following a CBC television interview with Peter Mansbridge in which he was asked about Syrian refugees and the niqab—both of which generated considerable debate during last year’s federal election campaign.

In response to claims that he was showing partisanship, Johnston told CBC that he continues to “worry about any initiatives that could cause us to be small-minded and to lose that sense of a) inclusiveness, b) fairness [and] c) equality of opportunity.”

He explains that while both issues have been controversial around the world, he didn’t seek to focus on the former Conservative government’s response, but on grassroots response from across the country, which he found “very heart-warming.”

“It reaffirmed our notion that we are a nation of immigrants, that we do believe in diversity [and that it] has been a great strength. So we welcome people who bring fresh energy, fresh ideas, and in this case with people who are amongst the most vulnerable in the world,” he says, adding: “That was the message I was attempting to convey, as opposed to [whether] I have an emotional view on this specific issue, [which] I’m not entitled to have — at least in public.”

Johnston adds that he only votes in provincial and municipal elections, even though he feels “a little bit awkward about it.”

“I don’t because I suppose it would be a bit of a photo-op if I were seen going into a polling station and there would be a lot of speculation [on] ‘Which way did he vote?’ … I think it’s best to simply avoid that speculation.”

Regarding youth

Of course, Johnston believes all Canadians should exercise their franchise as he encouraged students to do during his time as a university academic and administrator at Queen’s, Toronto, Western Ontario, McGill, and Waterloo. As governor general, he’s focused on encouraging “young people to understand the great joy and fulfilment in having a sense of service” and to create a “smarter and more caring nation” – his clarion call since taking office.

It’s about “moving from me to we,” Johnston explains. “Rather than being the centre of the universe, I see myself as a social animal and the world becomes a lot less lonely place when I see it in the context of others, especially if I can help others.”

He dismisses the oft-argued notion that millennials are a self-entitled generation. “I know that’s the theory, but I’ve worked with young people as a teacher since 1966, and grew up in an age of idealism … I was at a U.S. university [Harvard] – the Peace Corps was a big deal in the early ’60s.”

Drawing a comparison, he says, “I find young people today just as idealistic as my generation of young people, but I find them more pragmatic in their idealism.”

The Governor General highlights the “remarkable Canadian” WE Day movement led by brothers Marc and Craig Kielburger, both Members of the Order of Canada, who “inspire young people across this country and beyond to think of volunteerism,” which along with philanthropy, he has made as one of his major calls to action.

Regarding his influence

As focused as he is on young people and their share in shaping the future, Johnston says he’s also concerned about the future of the office he holds.

If Canadians are thinking about changing it, they should first consider what would replace the role, he says. “Many of us would come to the conclusion that what we have now has served us well, and that we’ve been able to make changes that are evolutionary rather than revolutionary.”

Electing a governor general, rather than having them appointed, would give that officeholder “a power base” — something governor generals do not have, as it would pull that position into the realm of politics, Johnston explains.’

Canadian historian Jack Granatstein dismisses governors general as simply “political appointees who play a cornerstone-laying role” and who should not have any power, which he maintains should reside with the prime minister, Cabinet and Parliament.

“I would much prefer a president; I would much prefer a republic; I would much prefer to see our connection to the UK eliminated,” says Granatstein, a Distinguished Research Professor of History Emeritus at York University and an Officer of the Order of Canada.

However, Johnston says that by separating the functions of head of state (which he is, on the Queen’s behalf) and the head of government (the prime minister), “you draw a distinction between the business of government, which is what elected officials do, and the spirit of the government, which is what the head of state’s representative is responsible for.”

In terms of the governor general’s power and influence, Johnston says that it ranges from “fairly significant” to “zero, or close to, as it should be.” For example, as viceroy, he cannot make law, but laws passed by Parliament require his signature in order to be enacted. The Governor General could use his or her reserve powers to refuse to grant royal assent to legislation, but that’s never happened at the federal level in Canada.

The GG also possesses a “softer power,” he explains, acknowledging he plays an “ambassadorial role.”

The Governor General receives about 60 new foreign heads of mission annually. He also meets with — and sometimes hosts — visiting heads of state to Canada.

Johnston is frequently on the move. This spring, he paid his sixth official visit to the United States, one of 45 trips he has made to 32 countries since becoming governor general.

“These missions strengthen the people-to-people relationships that are not based on hard bargaining, and the work that is being done by our representatives on the ground,” Johnston says.

“It’s difficult to explain the GG’s role to another country, where some consider that person to be a senior government official, while others consider him or her to just be a diplomatic representative,” explains Phil Kinsman, who served as press secretary to Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn and communications advisor to Roméo LeBlanc.

Part of his duties include serving as Canada’s Commander-in-Chief. It’s a role that occasionally offers the “worst, single part” of his job: when he and Mrs. Johnston attend repatriation ceremonies at Canadian Forces Base Trenton for soldiers who have died.

“It is an agonizing experience,” says Johnston, his eyes misting with tears, “yet one where I derive a great sense of comfort from knowing the nation bears the loss.” p-and-i-graphic-copy

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