Standing on the steps of Parliament Hill, behind a thin wooden podium, David Johnston is delivering his 123rd speech as Governor General. The occasion is the Canadian Police and Peace Officers’ 34th Memorial Service. He speaks carefully and deliberately. “I would like to pay tribute to all of the men and women in uniform who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep our communities safe throughout our history,” he says, his words echoing off the buildings of downtown Ottawa. “On behalf of all Canadians, I am grateful for all that you have done for this country.”
He returns, walking purposefully, to his seat. Later he will lay a wreath and afterwards he will greet family members of the fallen, visit briefly the memorial behind Centre Block and then slip inside for a reception in the Hall of Honour. The next morning he will fly to British Columbia, the 10th province to officially make his acquaintance (having been to the Yukon and Nunavut, he has only yet to visit the Northwest Territories). On Oct. 1, he celebrates his first anniversary as the Queen’s representative.
It has been a quiet start to his term. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, presented with a chance to rebut that adjective, he declines. “I don’t have any rebuttal,” he said in an interview last month. “I regard myself as a quiet person. As a university president for almost 27 years, [I learned that] quiet and steady and robust in the importance of the institution are good approaches.”
It helps, no doubt, that he has not so far been presented with any kind of constitutional crisis. But his tenure has also so far been free of controversy, consternation or intrigue. Save for his supporting role in the royal tour of William and Kate, it has been equally bereft of glamour. This may beg comparison to Michaëlle Jean or Adrienne Clarkson, but it may also simply fit the man.
The job is, by turns, ceremonial and essential, powerless and unifying. Governors General must assert themselves, but not too much. They can rally us to causes, but they mustn’t get involved in the politics of the day. They represent the Crown, but may also speak on behalf of the people. Whoever they were before, they suddenly have medals pinned to their chest and people are compelled to stand when His (or Her) Excellency enters a room. It is an odd job.
Johnston has the air of a kindly grandfather (which he is) or perhaps a veteran ambassador (which, after a few decades leading McGill and then the University of Waterloo, he might as well be). He is a voracious reader—his wife chides him for finishing books too fast—and he regularly accents his speeches with quotes from an eclectic assortment of leaders and thinkers, from George Bernard Shaw to St. Augustine to Tommy Douglas. He enthuses not just about this country’s beauty or vitality, but about our system of justice and belief in the rule of law. He speaks of his office with a certain detached deference. “One is always conscious of what the role is and what the role isn’t,” he says.
He’s read about his predecessors, and he has been drawn to John Buchan, who, in addition to being a diplomat and politician, was an accomplished novelist and historian. “He was a man of many parts and I think he was a quiet man,” Johnston says. “A man who derived his joy from serving well.”
Johnston has dedicated himself to the pursuit of a “smart and caring nation,” with emphasis on “families and children,” “learning and innovation,” and “philanthropy and volunteerism.” These are all perfectly unimpeachable ideas, but Johnston is said by a friend to approach his term with an organized mind and a sense of legacy. “It’s not really in his style to be vacuous,” says Tim Brodhead, former president of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.
In August, in that regard, Johnston made rare headlines with a speech to the Canadian Bar Association. His call on lawyers to “heal thyself” was a provocative enough sound bite, but in its entirety, his address was a 5,500-word dissertation on the state of the legal profession (delivered, of course, by a Cambridge-educated lawyer who served as dean of law at the University of Western Ontario for several years in the 1970s). Touching on everything from delays in the Canadian legal system to the collapse of Wall Street and government debt crises in Europe, Johnston sketched the need for lawyers to renew their social contract with the wider society. “What I was saying is I love the law, I’m very proud to be a legal professional and I think we need to redefine what professionalism means for a very different society than we had 20 years ago or 100 years ago,” Johnston says. “I thought that what I was saying was really quite appropriate to the role of governor general, part of whose responsibilities is to help us in desiring a better country and to encouraging the best in our country.”
In addition to regularly being the subject of debate, that role is often only loosely understood. On a trip to Saskatchewan this month, for instance, Johnston was asked if he would refuse royal assent to any bill meant to reform the Canadian Wheat Board. He was compelled to explain his reluctance to plunge the country’s system of government into crisis.
On the surface, Johnston might seem a throwback to the days before Adrienne Clarkson. He is not an experienced television personality (nor, for that matter, a woman) and it is unlikely that he will ever be asked about his fashion sense. A news archive search for “Michaëlle Jean” turns up 6,394 hits in the Canadian print media over the 12 months after her appointment was announced. A similar search for Johnston finds 3,782 hits. But whatever he may have in common with, say, Roland Michener, Johnston might equally represent a continuation of the tone set by Clarkson and Jean. “Both Madame Jean and Madame Clarkson, like Johnston, were very modern governors general in that they were very committed to interacting with ordinary Canadians as much as possible,” says Peter Russell, the constitutional scholar. “I think they set a new standard for making the state evident in their person to ordinary citizens. I think he’s very much a governor general cut from that cloth.”
Johnston, for his part, is straightforward in his reading of the role. “First of all, it is the representative of the Queen, so it’s leader as servant. Secondly, it’s apolitical and non-political. It is supposed to be out of controversy. Thirdly, it’s supposed to speak to and reinforce those values that are most important to Canada. And I think those are my values,” he says. “It’s our rule of law, system of justice, it’s our great sense of equality of opportunity. It’s encouraging people to see themselves as citizens who have a responsibility, beyond their immediate needs, to their families, to their communities. Those are quiet things, but they’re good things.”