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Johnston was born and raised in Ontario, studying there before enrolling at Harvard University and later Cambridge and Queen's universities. He went on to work as a professor at various post-secondary institutions in Canada, eventually serving administrative roles as dean of law at the University of Western Ontario, principal of McGill University, and president of the University of Waterloo. At the same time, Johnston involved himself with politics and public service, moderating political debates and chairing commissions in both the federal and provincial spheres, his most renowned position in that field being the chairmanship of the inquiry into the Airbus affair. He was in 2010 appointed as governor general by Queen Elizabeth II, on the recommendation of then Prime Minister of CanadaStephen Harper, to replace Michaëlle Jean as viceroy and he occupied the post until succeeded by Julie Payette in 2017. At the time, Johnston was predominantly praised as a worthy choice for the Queen's representative, though his appointment was denounced by some Quebec sovereigntists.
Johnston graduated high school and moved on to Harvard University in 1959, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, in 1963. While at Harvard, under the coaching of Cooney Weiland, Johnston captained the varsityice hockey team, was twice selected to the All-America team, and met and befriended Erich Segal, the two becoming jogging partners. In 1970, Segal wrote the best-selling novel Love Story, basing a character in the book--Davey, a captain of the hockey team--on Johnston. Johnston suffered three concussions from playing football and hockey; he was told by his doctor to either wear a helmet (at a time when they were unpopular) or stop playing hockey.
Johnston stepped down in 1994 as principal of McGill to remain at the university only as a law professor until he was in 1999 installed as the fifth President of the University of Waterloo. At that time, the couple acquired a home in Heidelberg, Ontario, and began operating an adjacent horse training ranch, Chatterbox Farm.
On November 14, 2007, Johnston was appointed by Governor GeneralMichaëlle Jean, on the advice of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as an independent adviser and charged with drafting for the Cabinet the terms of reference for the public inquiry, known as the Oliphant Commission, into the Airbus affair. This appointment itself, however, was criticized by the independent citizens' group Democracy Watch as a conflict of interest, given that Johnston had once reported directly to Mulroney during the latter's time as prime minister. Johnston completed his report on January 11, 2008, listing seventeen questions of interest for further investigation. He did not, however, include as a subject the awarding of the Airbus contract, on the basis that this aspect had already been investigated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, prompting criticism from opposition members of parliament and accusations that Johnston had acted as the Prime Minister's man. This intensified after it was later revealed that Mulroney had accepted $300,000 in cash from Karlheinz Schreiber, but Oliphant could not examine any possible link between that payment and Airbus due to the narrow scope of the commission's mandate. Others, though, such as Peter George, then-president of McMaster University, and subsequently the editorial board of The Globe and Mail, as well as Andrew Coyne in Maclean's, defended Johnston, detailing his integrity and independence. Johnston's role as special adviser was parodied by Roger Abbott on the January 11, 2008, airing of Air Farce Live.
For this corporate, government, charitable, and academic work, Johnston was in 1988 appointed to the Order of Canada as an Officer; he was promoted within the order to the rank of Companion in 1997. Johnston also gained a reputation as a non-partisan individual, but has expressed explicit support for Canadian federalism, having written a book opposing Quebec separatism, If Quebec Goes: The Real Cost of Separation. He has also published numerous books on law, chapters in other volumes, magazine articles, and aided in writing legislation. and sat as the co-chair of the Montreal No Committee during the 1995 Quebec referendum on independence.
Governor General of Canada
Johnston at the University of Waterloo, 2010
Balmoral Castle, where Johnston met with Queen Elizabeth II prior to his installation as governor general
As governor general-designate
On July 8, 2010, the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada announced that Queen Elizabeth II had approved Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recommendation of Johnston to succeed Michaëlle Jean as the Queen's representative. At the time, Harper said of Johnston that he represents "the best of Canada, he represents hard work, dedication, public service and humility. I am confident he will continue to embody these traits in his new role as the Crown representative in Canada." Johnston himself said in a press conference that he and his wife had always been dedicated to service and vowed to, while in office, defend Canadian heritage and institutions.
The appointment was widely praised, its announcement garnering positive words from individuals like former University of Toronto president Robert Prichard and columnist Andrew Coyne.Opposition LeaderMichael Ignatieff stated, "David Johnston's dedication to learning and innovation... combined with his legal expertise and constitutional knowledge makes him an ideal choice for Governor General." Johnston's university colleagues also noted his conciliatory abilities. Columnists stated that Johnston would be suited to face difficult constitutional choices, given the probability that the Canadian parliament's minority status would continue well after the start of his tenure as viceroy.
The press in Quebec generally focused on Johnston's ties to McGill University and his prominent role during the 1995 Quebec referendum. The president of Quebec's Conseil de la souveraineté, Gérald Larose, declared Johnston to be an "adversary" of Quebec independence and Mario Beaulieu, head of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, called the nomination of Johnston "partisan" and the governor general-designate himself a "federalist extremist", statements that columnist Richard Martineau, criticized for creating a "fake scandal", since any Governor General of Canada would advocate for Canadian unity. In addition, Johnston's low profile was expected to result in less criticism directed at the governor general's office, compared to his two predecessors.
The Queen issued on September 3, 2010, under the royal sign-manual and Great Seal of Canada, her commission naming Johnston as her next Canadian representative and, three days later, Johnston attended an audience with the Queen during a two-day stay at Balmoral Castle. At that time he was invested by the monarch as a Commander of both the Order of Military Merit and Order of Merit of the Police Forces. Johnston then announced to the media that there would be a theme to his installation ceremony: A call to service; he elaborated: "This theme of service echoes that of Her Majesty the Queen's 2010 visit 'Honouring the Canadian Record of Service--Past, Present and Future,' and illustrates how the governor general exemplifies the Canadian value of service to community and country."
Johnston's swearing-in took place on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, on October 1, 2010. At his request, the ceremony included Johnston and his wife meeting 143 Canadians (one for each year passed since Confederation), especially from the Canadian Forces and young people, and collecting 26 red and white roses from 13 individuals, one from each of Canada's 10 provinces and 3 territories. On the return coach ride from Parliament Hill to Rideau Hall, the viceregal couple stopped to lay the bouquet at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
One of Johnston's first duties as governor general was to perform the rare task of revoking the commissioning scrolls of an officer of Her Majesty's Canadian Forces, on October 22, 2010, at the direction of the Chief of the Defence Staff, stripping the recently convicted murderer and rapist Russell Williams of his rank of colonel and releasing him from duty under "service misconduct". On November 4, the Governor General made his first visit to Afghanistan to meet with Canadian troops serving there and the Afghan forces they were training; similar visits to Afghanistan followed through Johnston's tenure, including a Christmas spent with Canadian Forces personnel stationed at Camp Alamo and Camp Black Horse, as did meetings with members of the military in other locations overseas.
Johnston with Marina Kaljurand, Ambassador to Canada for Estonia, at Rideau Hall, December 1, 2011
The speech Johnston delivered on August 14, 2011, to the Canadian Bar Association's annual meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia, attracted media attention for its criticism of the legal profession: the Governor General lamented unnecessary and deliberate legal delays across Canada, the role of unscrupulous American lawyers in the unfolding of the global financial crisis, and said the profession was losing the public's trust. These comments were noted for being unusually controversial for a viceroy, but Johnston's colleagues and the editorial board of The Globe and Mail found the Governor General's words to be both unsurprising and welcome.
In keeping with his focus on education, the Governor General, beginning in his early months in office and continuing throughout his time there, visited a number of universities across Canada, attending conferences, delivering lectures, and speaking at convocations. He also carried this theme on during his state and official visits to foreign countries, including in his itinerary, among other events, tours of early education facilities, delivering addresses at universities and colleges, and meetings with economic and social development groups, as well as education ministers. He was also sometimes accompanied by Canadian university and college presidents.
Queen's Diamond Jubilee, First Nations issues, and the War of 1812
On Accession Day, February 6, 2012, Johnston took part in events launching Diamond Jubilee Week, marking the 60th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the Canadian throne. He thereafter participated in related commemorations, parties, and unveilings of monuments all across the country, throughout the year, as well as during a working visit to the Commonwealth realm Barbados between his aforementioned visit to Brazil and a state visit to Trinidad and Tobago. Johnston later hosted Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, on their tour of parts of Canada for the jubilee celebration and, in June, travelled to London, UK, to take part in various events held there for the jubilee. He then returned to London between July 25 and 30, to attend the Summer Olympics.
In January 2012, the Governor General opened the Crown-First Nations summit in Ottawa and at Rideau Hall hosted a meeting with First Nations youth leaders. By the end of the year, in the midst of the First Nations' Idle No More movement, national focus was turned partly on Johnston after Chief of the Attawapiskat First NationTheresa Spence began a protest, deemed a "hunger strike", against certain First Nations-related actions by the federal government and parliament and vowed publicly to continue until both Prime Minister Harper and the Governor General together met with her. The Assembly of First Nations also on December 16 issued an open letter the Governor General calling for a meeting to discuss Spence's demands. A meeting between the Prime Minister, other Cabinet ministers, First Nations chiefs, and representatives of the Assembly of First Nations took place on January 11, 2013, but Johnston declined to attend, as "it was not appropriate" for the representative of a constitutional monarch to publicly participate in discussions on government policy. This, along with other factors, led Spence and other chiefs to boycott the Prime Minister's conference, though she did attend the meeting and ceremony for First Nations chiefs that Johnston hosted at Rideau Hall the same evening. Spence declared after that she was not satisfied with the content of that gathering, vowed to continue her protest, and she and the Governor General communicated directly via letter. Spence ended her protest on January 24, 2013, though the demand for a meeting of First Nations chiefs, Cabinet ministers, and the Governor General together remained in a declaration signed by Spence and two leaders in Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.
The bicentennial of the commencement of the War of 1812 was also marked by various official events attended by the Governor General. During the royal tour, Johnston and Prince Charles were on May 22 at a military event at Fort York in Toronto and Johnston was also in the region of Niagara-on-the-Lake on June 16, for various events at Queenston Heights, the Laura Secord homestead, and Fort George, to "launch 1,000 days of commemorations". A War of 1812 National Recognition Ceremony was also conducted at Rideau Hall on October 25, 2012, at which the Governor General presented special medals and a banner to leaders of First Nations and Métis communities with historical ties to the War of 1812.
The Governor General served as an honorary witness in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. When the commission's work was completed in December 2015, Johnston presided over a closing ceremony at Rideau Hall, which book-ended the commission along with the opening ceremony hosted by Johnston's viceregal predecessor. He called for expanded education about the residential school system and said "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?"
Columnist John Robson said Johnston displayed a "manifest sympathy for aboriginal causes". However, the Governor General drew criticism on social media as a consequence of his saying, in an interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's radio show The House, on June 17, 2017, that "we're a country based on immigration, going right back to our, quote, Indigenous people, unquote, who were immigrants as well, 10, 12, 14,000 years ago", referring to the migration of humans acrossBeringia. Johnston explained he misspoke and apologised for his statement during a ceremony at Rideau Hall to honour leadership on Indigenous issues.
As part of his efforts to promote education and research, Johnston, beginning in 2012, annually hosted the Killiam Award Symposium at Rideau Hall. In regard to philanthropy, the Governor General established in late 2013 the Rideau Hall Foundation, a charitable group meant to aid the viceroy in connecting and honouring Canadians, enhancing Canadian identity, and increasing potential for excellence with the aid of certain partners. Johnston then launched, via the foundation, the My Giving Moment campaign, encouraging Canadians to donate their time and/or money. He was aided in the launch by George Stroumboulopoulos, who interviewed the Governor General on his show George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight. Johnston stated near the end of his tenure that he would remain as chairman of the Rideau Hall Foundation after his successor took office.
In late 2016, the Governor General hosted a conference on concussions, declaring head injuries in sports to be a "public health issue", and criticized the NHL's position on fighting in hockey. This followed on his remark made in early 2012 to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that hockey should be made safer by redesigning hard-plastic equipment, eliminating head shots and high-sticking, and eliminating fighting, which he said in a later interview was "eroding the game". He called on the NHL to hold a summit on fighting and concussions. While Johnston did speak with NHL CommissionerGary Bettman and the deputy commissioners about a two-day conference that would, with the involvement of medical experts and individuals associated with hockey, decide on new game rules, the group of people involved became too large to manage. Johnston instead turned his attention to the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada and raising awareness among parents.
In March 2015, Johnston accepted an invitation to stay in the viceregal office until September 2017. This was considered desirable in order to ensure that an experienced viceroy was in-place should the 2015 Canadian federal election result in a minority government or otherwise be inconclusive. In September 2017, he became the longest-serving governor general since Georges Vanier. It was also thought worthwhile for Johnston to remain in office for the Canada 150 celebrations.
As governor general, Johnston hosted over 600 events at either Rideau Hall or La Citadelle and, as commander-in-chief, attended 330 military events. Within Canada, Johnston visited more than 130 communities and, as part of the country's international relations, he led more than 50 international visits, making him the most travelled governor general in Canadian history. Conversely, he hosted approximately five dozen foreign dignitaries on state and working visits to Canada. The Governor General delivered over 1,400 speeches and awarded tens of thousands of honours, medals, and special commemorations and welcomed 1.5 million Canadians to Rideau Hall and the Citadel.
On September 27, 2017, the week of his departure, he presided over a military farewell ceremony and military parade by a 100-man guard of honour from the Canadian Armed Forces at the Aviation and Space Museum, at Rockcliffe Airport. A few days before Johnston completed his service, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described him as a family friend, "a man of strength, intelligence and compassion." He also praised Johnston as an athlete and an academic dedicated to education and lifelong learning. The Government of Canada will donate $3 million, and up to $7 million in matching funds over 10 years, to the Rideau Hall Foundation, a charity founded by Johnston. Its goal, he said, "is to gather, align and mobilize ideas, people and resources to move the Canadian spirit and our shared aspirations forward".
David Johnston's comments during a farewell ceremony on Parliament Hill included the following: "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."
Post vice-regal career
Shortly after the end of his vice-regal tenure, Johnston joined the consulting firm Deloitte as an executive advisor and will provide advice to private sector and government clients on "innovation, inclusiveness, talent development and leadership, and the role those things play in economic growth."
On June 18, 2018, it was announced that Johnston would be appointed Colonel of the Regiment for the Royal Canadian Regiment, effective August 4, 2018. He succeeded Major-General (Retired) J. Ivan Fenton. The position was previously held by Colonel W. J. Aitchison.
Just prior to his installation as governor general, Johnston was granted a personal coat of arms.
September 24, 2010
A candle Argent enflamed and within a stand Or flanked by four closed books their spines palewise, two Gules and two Or, all set on a closed book bound Or its edge fesswise Argent.
Argent fretty Sable, on a chief Gules the Royal Crown between two open books Or
Two unicorns Gules, armed, maned, tufted, unguled, each charged on the shoulder with an astrolabe Or
a grassy mount Or set with two feet Gules winged Sable and in base a bar wavy Sable inscribed with zeros and ones Or
Contemplare Meliora (lit. To envisage better things)
The ribbon and insignia of a Companion of the Order of Canada. Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam (They desire a better country)
The interlaced pattern symbolizes the central role of family and other relationships in his life, as well as his interest in communication networks and his belief in the interconnectedness of knowledge; it also touches on the importance he puts on order and organization. The crown is the traditional symbol of the Governor general. The books refer to knowledge and education, but also to the law. The five books of the crest stand for Johnston's five daughters while the candle refers to enlightenment and the transmission of knowledge. The shield's general design and colours are inspired from various Scottish Johnston arms.
The unicorns symbolize dreams, imagination, purity and faithfulness, and their colour stands for Canada. The astrolabe is a reference to intellectual exploration and the rich background of Canadian explorers going back to Jacques Cartier. Their winged feet are traditionally attributed to Hermes. In addition to alluding to communication (also referred to in the zeros and ones, more specifically referring to digital media), they also evoke fitness and sports. The binary code reflects the flow of information in modern society.
The Motto is an allusion to a line in George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah ("You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?'").