For the first time in the 21st century, Canada would have a male Governor General. In fact, when David Johnston took over from Michaelle Jean in 2010, he was the first male Governor General in 11 years. As well, in a marked change from the 20th century, he remains the only male Governor General of the century so far.
Johnston was born on June 28, 1941 in Sudbury, Ontario to Lloyd and Dorothy Johnston. His father owned a hardware store that was successful enough for the family to live a comfortable life in the community. His ancestors had come from Scotland, which he described by way of Northern Ireland. He would say quote:
“They found struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks, like nearly all immigrants to our country. They also found opportunities for themselves, but more so for their descendants.”
As a young man, Johnston was highly skilled in athletics and would serve as the quarterback for his football team at Sault Collegiate Institute. He would also play on an under-17 hockey team with future Hockey Hall of Famers Phil and Tony Esposito.
A teammate would say of him quote: “David would stop the puck in his teeth to stop it going into the net.”
Growing up, it was the dream of Johnston to make it to the NHL and he was good enough to be scouted by Jimmy Skinner, the scout for the Detroit Red Wings. That may have been his path but when Skinner told Johnston’s mother that most boys who were drafted didn’t complete high school, she refused to allow her son to negotiate any further.
Johnston would go on to attend Harvard on a scholarship, where he continued to play hockey and he contemplated attending the Boston Bruins training camp. In the end, he decided to put an end to his hockey career aspirations, and instead devoted himself to academics.
He would win the John Tudor Memorial Cup as the most valuable player in 1962-63 and was twice named to the all-American hockey team. For his time playing hockey in Harvard, he would be inducted into the Harvard Varsity Club’s Hall of Fame.
While attending Harvard, he would be roommates with Erich Segal, who would write Love Story, which became a highly successful movie. The character of Davey Johnston, a hockey captain, was a nod to his friend.
He would attend Trinity Hall at Cambridge, where he earned a Bachelor of Laws in 1965, and then graduated with first class honours from Queen’s University in 1966. It was that same year that he married his high school sweetheart Sharon, with whom he would have five children. As a grandfather, his grandchildren called him Grandpa Book because of his extensive reading habits.
Johnston would write years later quote:
“I met Sharon when she was 13 and I was 14. Although we were separated for long stretches while I attended university, I think we were destined to be together for life. She has helped me have a fulfilling career, contributing to my role as university dean and executive, as well as governor general.”
After his graduation, Johnston was hired by a Toronto law firm but instead of taking the job he decided to take a one year hiatus from law. That one year hiatus turned into a rest of his life hiatus as he never practiced law.
Instead, he began to push himself into an academic career where he taught various law courses. He would begin serving as an assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University. He then joined the law faculty of the University of Toronto, where he remained until 1974.
From 1974 to 1979, Johnston served as the dean of the University of Western Ontario Law School, eventually becoming the vice-chancellor of McGill University.
It was at McGill, and in that role, he became friends with Pierre and Margaret Trudeau, and his children would become close friends with the children of the Trudeaus, including Justin.
Johnston would serve as the vice-chancellor of McGill University until 1994 when he stepped down, but he remained as a law professor until 1999. Throughout his years as vice chancellor of McGill University, Johnston would see his profile begin to rise throughout Canada due to his role as a moderator of federal election debates, beginning with the 1979 leaders debate, followed by the 1984 leaders debate between Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Ed Broadbent. He would also moderate the 1987 provincial election leaders debate.
In 1999, he became the president of the University of Waterloo. During his time at the university, he was known for being close with students, and often appeared in their multimedia projects. An example of this is when he appeared in Baby Buddha’s hip hop music video The Streets of Waterloo Part Two. He was also protective of his students. When Bill Gates visited the university, Gates criticized the interview questions of a student reporter. Afterwards, Johnston said quote:
“I thought that last question was excellent, even though he dodged it.”
Johnston would serve on various commissions including the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, and the National Task Force on High Speed Broadband Access. He would also host two current event shows called The Editors and The World in Review on CBC and PBS.
On Nov. 14, 2007, Governor General Michaelle Jean would appoint Johnston, on the advice of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as an advisor in charge of drafting the terms of reference for the public inquiry that would become known as the Airbus Affair. This was criticized by Democracy Watch because the affair involved former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, with whom Johnston was close with during Mulroney’s later years as prime minister.
The Canadian Press reported quote:
“The man who will advise terms of reference for a public probe into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair once worked with and reported directly to Brian Mulroney on environmental issues. That raises questions about whether Johnston can be seen as a wholly impartial adviser.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper would state quote:
“Dr. Johnston has served various governments in various public policy capacities and we certainly appreciate his willingness to serve once again in what will be a difficult and challenging job.”
Johnston would release his report on Jan. 11, 2008 listing 17 questions of interest for further investigations. While some criticized his ruling, many others praised Johnston for his integrity and independence in the report.
Overall, Johnston had a reputation as a non-partisan individual who supported Canadian federalism to the point that he wrote a book opposing Quebec separatism.
Due to his raised profile and non-partisan reputation, he would be appointed as the Governor General of Canada on July 8, 2010.
A special committee had been convened by the prime minister to find a new Governor General, and Johnston was the one who came up as the main recommendation.
The appointment of Johnston was praised throughout Canada, by both parties but it was not popular in Quebec due to Johnston’s role during the 1995 Quebec Referendum when he co-chaired the Montreal No Committee. Mario Beaulieu, head of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, called the appointment partisan and said that Johnston was a federalist extremist.
Johnston would say on July 9, quote:
“As the representative of the Queen of Canada, who is our country’s head of state, I pledge to be a stalwart defender of our Canadian heritage, of Canadian institutions and of the Canadian people.”
On Sept. 6, 2010, Johnston would attend an audience with Queen Elizabeth II during a two day stay at Balmoral Castle. It was there that Johnston announced the theme for his installation ceremony would be A call to service.
On Oct. 1, 2010, Johnston was sworn in as the new Governor General. A unique aspect of his installation ceremony was that he requested that 143 Canadians be part of the ceremony to represent the 143 years since Canadian Confederation. He also had 26 red and white roses held by 13 people, one from each of Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories.
During the coach ride from Parliament Hill to Rideau Hall, Johnston and his wife laid down a bouquet at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
In his first speech as Governor General, he would say quote:
“We want to be a smart and caring nation.”
He would add that his mission was to bring people together to create a nation that quote:
“will inspire, not just Canadians, but the entire world.”
He would then quote George Bernard Shaw and say quote:
“Some people see things as they are and wonder why. We dream of things that ought to be and ask why not.”
In attendance at what was appearing to be a new tradition, were former Governors General Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean.
Clarkson would say quote:
“I’m so thrilled because David Johnston is a wonderful human being and a great Canadian. I think he understands what the job is and I’m sure we will see some very good and very solid things.”
Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien would say at the ceremony quote:
“I’ve known him for a long time. He comes from a different milieu. He’s an academic, he lived in Montreal, he lived in Ontario, he’s an athlete. Those are all things that impress me.”
Only one month after he became Governor General, Johnston made his first visit to Afghanistan to visit the troops there. This would not be the only visit he would make to Afghanistan, becoming the first Governor General to make multiple visits to the war zone.
On Aug. 14, 2011, Johnston gave a speech at the Canadian Bar Association’s annual meeting where he criticized the legal profession in Canada for its deliberate legal delays and the role of American lawyers in the global financial crisis. While some criticized his stance, others praised him for speaking out about it.
Along with making state visits to various countries around the world, Johnston would host Prince Charles, now King Charles III, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, on their tours of Canada. He would also attend the Summer Olympics in London as a representative of Canada.
In January 2012, the Governor General opened the Crown-First Nations summit and would host Indigenous youth leaders at Rideau Hall that same month. Later in the year, the Idle No More protests began and Theresa Spence began a hunger strike until the prime minister and Johnston met with her. While the prime minister would agree to meet with her, Johnston did not, stating that it was not appropriate for the representative of the Queen to publicly participate in discussions on government policy.
Johnston would take part in celebrations of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and he launched 1,000 days of commemorations. This included hosting a War of 1812 National Recognition Ceremony at Rideau Hall on Oct. 25, 2012, where medals were presented to Indigenous and Metis community leaders who had ties to the War of 1812.
He would also serve as the honorary witness in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and he would preside over the closing ceremony of the commission in December 2015 at Rideau Hall. In the ceremony, he called for more education about the residential school system, stating quote:
“This is a moment for national reflection and introspection, to think about the depth of our commitment to tolerance, respect and inclusiveness, and whether we can do better. This is a moment to think about those people – those children, those mothers and fathers, those families and those elders, past and present. And it’s also a moment to ask: where do we go from here?”
Beginning in 2012, Johnston annually hosted the Killiam Award Symposium at Rideau Hall as part of his commitment to education as part of his mandate as Governor General.
In March 2015, Johnston would accept an invitation to remain as Governor General until September 2017. With an election coming in 2015, it was felt that it was best to have him remain as Governor General, and to also have him remain in office for the Canada 150 celebrations. This made him the longest serving Governor General since Georges Vanier.
In 2016, he would publish the book The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation, which was a best-selling book of letters to individual Canadians.
In late 2016, Johnston would host a conference on concussions, calling it a public health issue and he would criticize fighting in the NHL. He called on the NHL to host a summit on concussions and he would speak with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman over the matter.
On Sept. 27, 2017, a military parade with a 100-man guard of honour was held to honour Johnston in his last week as Governor General. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would call him a man of strength, intelligence and compassion.
Trudeau announced that the government of Canada would donate $3 million, and then up to $7 million in matching funds, for the next 10 years to the Rideau Hall Foundation. This foundation had been established by Johnston to move the Canadian spirit forward.
In his final speech as Governor General, Johnston would say quote:
“Serving as Governor General is a responsibility I have cherished for the past seven years. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to give back to this country I love so much.”
Just prior to leaving his role as Governor General, Johnston made nationwide news when he broke royal protocol after he held the left elbow of the Queen as she walked down a flight of steps. A minor violation and Johnston would say quote:
“I’m certainly conscious of the protocol. I was just anxious to be sure there was no stumbling on the steps. It is a little bit awkward, that descent from Canada House to Trafalgar Square, and there was carpet that was a little slippy. I thought it was perhaps appropriate to breach protocol just to be sure there was no stumble.”
Over the course of his time as Governor General, Johnston hosted over 600 events, and attended 330 military events. He would visit over 130 communities and took part in more than 50 international visits. He would also host five dozen foreign dignitaries to Canada, and delivered 1,400 speeches. As well, he welcomed 1.5 million people to the official residences of the Governor General.
After his time as Governor General ended, Johnston would remain as the chair of the Rideau Hall Foundation.
On June 18, 2018, he was appointed the Colonel of the Regiment for the Royal Canadian Regiment.
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Governor General of Canada, Wikipedia, Kingston Whig-Standard, Sault Star, National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, Montreal Gazette,