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A new kind of Governor General

A new kind of Governor General

The appointment of David Johnston, Law’66, as Canada’s new Governor General has been greeted with almost universal praise. The reasons are obvious.

Behind David Johnston’s “Aw Gosh!” nice-guy image and sometimes hokey love of Canada as “the most blessed country in the world, from almost any dimension you can imagine,” is a razor-sharp mind, prodigious energy, a magnetism for new ideas, and an incredible record of excelling in everything he has ever pursued, ranging from academe to public service, to the hockey rink.

If it is true, as one of his former law students, Robert Pritchard (who went on to become dean of law and president of the U of T) said, that Johnston is the best prepared Governor General in Canadian history, Queen’s played a brief, but very important, part.

In the current political climate, it is quite possible that, in addition to receiving Girl Guides, dignitaries, and diplomats at Rideau Hall, awarding medals, and visiting the far-flung outposts of the realm, he will be called upon to exercise the reserve powers of a ­governor general to determine the fate of the government of the day.

And if he does, the constitutional law course he took at Queen’s from the late Bill ­Lederman will be topmost in his mind. Johnston told me in an interview before he was sworn in as Governor General that he hopes he will never be confronted with a King-Byng situation (when in 1926, then Governor General Viscount Byng refused Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King’s request to dissolve Parliament provoking a constitutional crisis), or a confrontation over prorogation as his predecessor did with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But if Johnston ever faces a constitutional crunch, he wishes Dean Lederman were still around to advise him. “In his time, he was the leading constitutional lawyer in the country.”

Johnston came to the law school at Queen’s in the fall of 1965 fresh from receiving his LLB with honours from Cambridge, which, while prestigious, did not qualify him to practice law in Canada. He chose Queen’s to get his Canadian qualifications because, of all of the Ontario law schools he consulted, Queens was prepared to give him the most credit for his Cambridge years and to allow him to get his Canadian law degree in one more year, which he did with First Class Honours in 1966.

After less than two months on campus, Johnston had so impressed Dean Lederman and his colleagues that they asked him to postpone his plan to article with a Toronto law firm and join the ­faculty instead. Johnston agreed and taught for two years at Queen’s before moving to the U of T.

It was also his experience at Queen’s that triggered his interest in securities and administrative law and in the nascent field of computers and the law. The latter could be said to help set the stage for much of his later career, including his 11 years as the president of Waterloo University when that university blossomed as a leader in the high-tech world.

When Johnston moved into Rideau Hall on Oct.1 as titular head of the Government of Canada and Commander-in-Chief, it marked the termination of a rich journey from that day 69 years ago, in June 1941, when he was born in Sudbury. In high school in Sault Ste. Marie, he was known as much as an athlete as a student, a duality he continued at Harvard, where he was captain of the Harvard hockey team, was twice named an All-American and was inducted into the Harvard Sports Hall of Fame. (Even today, he frequently describes an objective with the metaphor that “it is time to put the puck in the net.”)

He was scouted by the Boston Bruins, but decided the more prudent course with his Magna Cum Laude degree from Harvard was to take up the scholarship he had been offered to go to the other Cambridge, in England, to study law. His ensuing stint at Queen’s led to 18 years as a law professor at four of the leading law schools in Canada, (Queen’s, U of T, McGill, and Western, where he was also the dean). This string was interrupted by three terms (15 years) as president of McGill in the tense years leading up to the Québec referendum in 1995 and was followed by 11 years as president of the University of Waterloo.

Along the way, he wrote or co-wrote 19 books (several with the help of his lawyer daughters, Kathleen and Deborah), many other chapters, conference papers, and public reports – mostly about corporate, securities and communications law. Early on, he grasped the importance of computers, and his first book, Computers and the Law, was “an effort to taste the new wine of technology in the old bottles of law.”

His over-arching philosophical pursuit has been the relationship between justice and the law and the obligation to change unjust law. He attributes much of this inspiration to his experience at Queen’s, especially studying with the late Daniel Soberman, “who taught these principles with a passion.”

If, as Shakespeare wrote “there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,” David Johnston caught the flood when he went to the University of Waterloo as president in 1999. The university was already known for its emphasis on engineering, but under Johnston’s leadership it has developed into a world class centre for research and innovation.

His appointment as Governor General has been greeted with unanimous acclaim, none more vociferous than that from his admirers in the Kitchener-Waterloo complex, who attribute the unique blend of university, private-sector spinoffs and community participation to his extraordinary powers of persuasion and collaboration. That combination has led to $600-million investment in new research facilities and programs there in the past decade.

His accomplishments in university law and administration would be considered an impressive career on their own. But they are complemented by an extensive role in civil society and public service. He was a member of the Federal Government’s constitutional advisory committee as it struggled to come to an accommodation with Québec, chairman of the Advisory Council to the Federal Government on the Information Highway, then chair of the National Broadband Task Force, and founding chair of the ­National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy to name just a few.

In the lead-up to the 1995 Québec referendum, he co-wrote a book, If Québec Goes; the Real Cost of Separation, and then he co-chaired the “No” committee opposed to Québec sovereignty.

His most recent bath in the public spotlight came when Prime Minister Harper asked him to inquire into the allegations of improper financial dealings between Karlheinz Schreiber, a lobbyist and arms dealer, and former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Johnston was criticized for drawing the mandate of the subsequent judicial inquiry too narrowly, but he concluded that the RCMP had already investigated the Airbus allegations and going back over that ground would expand the judicial inquiry beyond its immediate concern.

In spite his many honours and accomplishments, Johnston retains a disarming humility and shirt-sleeved openness. Just ask his Mennonite neighbours or former students. He even participated in a rap video with some of them at Waterloo (but wore a tie!)

His lifelong tapestry of commitment to family, community and public service, are all now coming together at Rideau Hall. As Prime Minister Harper said at Johnston’s inaugural ceremony, the new Governor General “has been driven by the intense belief that service is not merely an option. It is a duty, an obligation of the heart that honour compels a man to accept.” Public service runs in the family. His five daughters (two lawyers, one physician, one economist and one Harvard PhD) are all working with government or teaching.

So what can we expect from Governor General Johnston?

His inaugural speech, outlining the goal of a “smart and caring” nation ,offered a notional preview: support for families and children, reinforcement for learning and innovation, and encouragement of philanthropy and volunteerism. (The importance of family was underlined when the horse-drawn landau delivered him and his wife Sharon to the vice-regal residence after the installation ceremony and several of his seven grandchildren also spilled out.)

It’s worth noting how often “smart”, “learning” and “innovation” recurred (underlined each time with a wave of his Blackberry.) Yet he becomes de facto head of state at a time when many people feel the government of the day is heading in the opposite direction. Prime Minister Harper’s government has steadily downgraded evidence-based decision making in favor of credo. Independent or arms-length research and policy groups, such as the Law Reform Commission, and the federal government’s three major research-granting councils, have been disbanded or financially squeezed and social programs are being constrained.

So what influence will Governor General Johnston have in promoting his goals? His executive power is limited to protecting Parliament and the possibility of designating or dismissing prime ministers. But during our interview, he pointed to the observation of Walter Bagehot, the 19th-century British constitutional author, who wrote that “the sovereign, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, has three rights; the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.”

It’s a fair bet that Johnston, with expertise stretching from the law to the environment to the economy, will seek to exercise all three of those rights. The “best-prepared” governor general is the sum of his many parts and he may tread quite a different path than his recent predecessors.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-4 cover]