Incoming GG David Johnston 'brings people together'
Governor General-designate David Johnston makes brief remarks outside the Senate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday July 8, 2010. (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Thursday, September 30, 2010 11:12AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 2:49AM EDT
He’s as comfortable joining a game of pickup hockey with the boys as he is sharing tea with the Queen; can charm even the most bitter foes into getting along; and is a shrewd lawyer familiar with Parliament’s corridors of power.
David Johnston, who will be sworn in Friday as Canada’s next governor general, may be the perfect choice for the job, according to his former colleagues and many friends.
“He has this enormous, wonderful capacity to bring out the best in people, to get them to pull together,” says Dr. Richard Cruess, who was dean of medicine at McGill University in the 1980s while Johnston was the university’s principal. “It’s quite remarkable … he brings people together and manages to create a collegial atmosphere.”
“He has a knack for getting along with anybody.”
With a minority government in power, he will probably have plenty of chances to use that gift, but Cruess says everyone who knows Johnston is confident he’s the man for the job.
“He has enormous energy and he’s hugely adaptable,” says Cruess, who has known the Johnston and his family for nearly 30 years. “He’s just such a personable person and that’s what he’ll bring to Rideau Hall … whether he can make Parliament get along I don’t know, but if anyone can it’s David.”
The 69-year-old former president of the University of Waterloo has an enviable resume. He has three degrees – including one from Harvard University – and a dozen honorary degrees from universities across Canada.
He has a lengthy list of honours and awards to his name; has published dozens of books and scholarly papers; and has served as chairman or adviser to four federal task forces. Johnston was even chosen as a moderator for the federal leaders’ debates during the 1979 and 1984 elections.
But Johnston, the son of a hardware merchant from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is known for staying out of the limelight. “His ego is well under control,” says Cruess.
“He doesn’t seem to have a need to take credit for things: he just offloads the credit to the people working for him.”
And after nearly a decade of high-profile governors-general, the best thing about Johnston from the governing Conservatives’ point of view may be that he isn’t a celebrity.
Johnston’s only brush with fame came during the early 1960s, when he was a student at Harvard and captain of the varsity hockey team. One of his friends was Erich Segal, who went on to write the novel “Love Story.”
A minor character in the best-selling book was named Davey, the captain of the Harvard hockey team, and was almost certainly based on Johnston.
Although he has been courted by both the Liberals and the Conservatives to run as a candidate, friends say he wasn’t interested, although former University of Toronto president Robert Pritchard said he “could easily have been prime minister himself.”
His only foray into politics was during the 1995 Quebec referendum, when he was vice-president of Montreal’s No committee and the only apparent criticism of his appointment came from Quebec separatists.
Johnston also raised controversy when he was asked by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to define the terms of reference for a federal inquiry into Brian Mulroney's business dealings with German-Canadian arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber. He eventually ruled that the inquiry should be narrow in scope -- a decision that some said was friendly to the Harper's Conservative government.
But the overall reaction to Johnston’s appointment, even among Ottawa pundits, was positive.
Maclean's columnist Paul Wells wrote of Johnston: “It would be hard to think of anyone who has been involved, up to the neck, in more issues of public controversy and wound up getting less controversy on himself.”