Reign Maker

David Johnston, Canada’s twenty-eighth Governor General, possesses impeccable credentials and old-fashioned charm. Plus he is the government’s secret weapon in restoring the power of the monarchy

Photograph by Nigel Dickson

Blue eyes twinkling in his ruddy face, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston exudes grandfatherly benevolence as he submits to yet another interview about his role as Governor General. He is smaller in person than I expected from photos, and radiates a vigour impressive in a white-haired man of seventy. He also excels at viceregal non-answers.

Does the Canadian representative of the Crown feel locked in a gilded cage? Johnston parries the idea that his position is merely ornamental—a sort of constitutional appendix that only flares up occasionally: “The constraints here are appropriate. And the opportunities to speak to Canadians, to bring Canadians together, are somewhat unconstrained.”


I’ve been told I have exactly thirty minutes for this interview. Across the pale Persian rug of Rideau Hall’s small drawing room, Johnston’s communications adviser sits with her ankles neatly crossed, eyes flickering between watch and BlackBerry. I’m only a third of the way through my prepared questions, but Johnston’s ability to spin out platitudes is gobbling up the time, and he is too smart to step into any minefields. “I don’t have an opinion on that,” he replied to one close-to-the-line question, “because I don’t have an opinion on political matters.” I try marshmallow softball. How would he finish a sentence beginning with the words “A Canadian is…”? His answer is beyond bland: “A Canadian is one who believes in both equality of opportunity and excellence.”

I’m sure we can all subscribe to that.

I begin to wonder if the viceregal office reduces even the brainiest individual to a dull figurehead, sandwiched between the lofty prerogatives of the monarch on the other side of the Atlantic, and the ferociously guarded power of the prime minister on the other side of Ottawa’s Sussex Drive. Smothered in protocol and throttled by correctness, maybe all a Governor General can do is act as a kind of mute maître d’ to the nation—until, that is, a constitutional crisis arises. But we won’t likely see one in the remaining years of Johnston’s term, now that Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads a majority government.

Summer sunlight streams through the sash windows. Outside, a fat black squirrel scrambles through the branches of a maple tree amid Rideau Hall’s beautifully kept thirty-two hectares of lawns and woods. The half-empty bookshelves, tastefully upholstered chesterfield, and glossy coffee-table books remind me of a comfortable hotel somewhere in the English Home Counties. Johnston himself fits the decor: in his sober tie and square-cut navy suit, he could have walked out of a Brooks Brothers advertisement, circa 1970. He often mentions that he has been married forty-six years. Whenever he has an audience of schoolchildren in front of him, he chuckles as he refers to his grandchildren’s nickname for him: “Grampa Book.”

In our interview, Johnston has moved on to philanthropy. “I think the notion of caring for the community, of looking after a neighbour, is implicit in the Canadian experience,” he says, “and I think it’s something we want to magnify and reinforce as we see Canada evolving.” I wonder if I should write down these bromides.

A voice interrupts: “I’m afraid your next appointment is waiting, Your Excellency.” The trim figure bounces quickly to his feet. Thirty minutes after he entered the room, he is out the door. The kabuki theatre of this interview is over. He has smiled and said little of consequence. I have nodded and heard little of note.

Does it have to be this way? What do Canadians want from our Governor General? And, more immediately, what does the government that appointed Johnston want from him? While he carries out his duties with buttoned-down charm, the Harper government is quietly ensuring that every morsel of substance is sucked out of the viceregal role. In an extraordinary return to the Canada of yesteryear, the government is engineering a comeback for the monarchy. Johnston, consciously or not, has been recruited into the prime minister’s campaign to restore the symbols of an older, whiter Canada.

The only time most of us will see Johnston doing his job is at the televised opening of a parliamentary session, where the GG (as the office is known around Ottawa) reads a speech outlining the government’s program. He may turn up at a community celebration (provided the community has requested His Excellency’s presence several months in advance), or a natural disaster (the GG will likely hover in a helicopter over the flood, fire, or drought before offering solace to survivors.) He receives daffodils when he appears at the launch of the Canadian Cancer Society’s Daffodil Days campaign in Ottawa, and he shakes premiers’ hands when he makes official visits to provinces and territories. Otherwise, sightings are rare.

Yet the office deserves more attention; it is deeply rooted in our past and forms an integral part of our government. Since the pre-1759 French regime, someone has functioned in that capacity, which makes it older than our nation and the oldest continuous institution on Canadian soil. Only a country as neglectful of its own history as Canada is could be so ignorant of a national role that is (on paper, at least) crucial to our Constitution.

Well before Confederation, the office had evolved from serving as chief executive of a colony to reflecting the constitutional monarch it represented. It was a glittering symbol of British authority, and the office holder acted simultaneously as an agent of the British government and a crucial go-between for Britain and Canada. When the Dominion of Canada was proclaimed in 1867, the duties became more circumscribed, while the prime minister’s expanded. Historian Margaret MacMillan has pointed out that after Confederation, “much about the position of the Governor General was unclear.” However, its chief responsibility—and sole area of discretion, then and now—has been to ensure Canada has a legitimately elected prime minister. Johnston sits at the apex of a power pyramid: in theory, the executive (run by the prime minister) and the judiciary (headed by the Supreme Court) defer to him.

Johnston is the twenty-eighth Governor General since Confederation, in a long line of distinguished individuals who by and large had to make it up as they went along. “Each incumbent has to decide how he or she will use this platform,” says Christopher McCreery, a historian who has written extensively on the Canadian honours system. “The job is about more than standing in for the Crown.” None of the first seventeen post-Confederation Governors General was born in Canada. Almost exclusively members of the House of Lords, they were chosen by Westminster with limited input from Canada.

The early viceroys wore their imperial authority effortlessly, and treated their postings to the distant, icy capital of Ottawa with varying degrees of enthusiasm. In idiosyncratic ways, they found their platforms. In the 1870s, the Earl of Dufferin and his wife staged amateur theatricals at Rideau Hall. His successor, the Marquess of Lorne, Queen Victoria’s son-in-law, supposedly swathed himself in buffalo robes and hosted elaborate tobogganing parties. In 1893, Lord Stanley donated a large silver cup to the winners of an amateur hockey competition. These regimes featured pomp and ceremony and dripped with noblesse oblige, but British grandees were startled by the absence of class deference within the Dominion. “Guests and waiters chatting to each other seemed a little odd at first,” recalled a steward to the Duke of Connaught, the tenth post-Confederation Governor General, “but we soon got used to this and thoroughly enjoyed waiting.”

During these years, Governors General, who had a permanent office on Parliament Hill, regularly discussed policy with prime ministers but were rarely drawn into partisan politics. The most famous occasion on which this did happen was the King-Byng Affair of 1926, when Lord Byng of Vimy refused Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s request to dissolve Parliament and call an election. The wily King immediately created a constitutional crisis, declaring that Byng’s legitimate action amounted to unwarranted political interference by Britain. When the dust settled, King was back in power as prime minister and the role of Governor General had been still further reduced. No future Governor General would represent both the sovereign and the British government. Instead, a Canadian High Commissioner in London and a British High Commissioner in Ottawa would act as intermediaries.

So what are the duties of a twenty-first-century Governor General? Most fall under the category of “formal ritual,” in the words of Ned Franks, a professor emeritus of political studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. The Governor General summons, prorogues, and dissolves parliamentary sessions; reads the Speech from the Throne; gives royal assent to bills and government appointments; receives ambassadors and visiting dignitaries; hosts state dinners; and presents awards and honours. However, an added dimension lends the office a whiff of magic: metaphorically, he or she embodies Canada. The appointment of the Governor General is the most important duty the monarch continues to exercise in Canada, although today it is always on the recommendation of the Canadian prime minister. According to MacMillan, the Governor General “symbolizes the nation in good times and bad and performs the duties and conducts the rituals that summon up what we share as citizens.”

But it’s challenging to help build a national community in a hugely diverse country. During his tenure, Johnston is pushing three themes: education, philanthropy, and support for families. Despite the 200 speeches he has delivered during his first year in the position, his themes have proved too nebulous to gain much traction. He has yet to make his mark.

When asked which of his predecessors he particularly admires, Johnston names two who filled the job splendidly but were impossibly stuffy by today’s standards. The first is John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir (1935–1940), because of his “Scots rigour of hard work and accomplishment.” The second is Vincent Massey (1952–1959), because he was “a man for all seasons who helped to establish a Canadian presence in this office at a very important time.”

Johnston’s choices are interesting. Like him, Buchan and Massey were fit, self-assured men of Anglo stock who were educated at elite universities and had distinguished careers before moving to Rideau Hall. Buchan, a successful novelist, trained as a lawyer, worked in South Africa, wrote for the Times of London, and sat as an MP in the UK Parliament. Massey taught history at the University of Toronto and ran the family agriculture machinery company. Later, he chaired the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts and served as High Commissioner in London. These two viceroys had experience in public life, radiated dignity, and upheld traditional values while quietly modernizing the office and making it more responsive to ordinary citizens.

Buchan founded the Governor General’s Literary Awards to encourage Canadians to develop their own distinct identity, and was constantly on the road, he explained to his son, because “I am the only trait d’union between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the St. Lawrence and the North Pole.” Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born viceroy, established the Governor General’s Awards for Architecture and the Massey Medal for achievement in Canadian geography, and laid the foundation for the Order of Canada, the country’s most important system of honours. (He was also grander than most British nobs. GG watchers still love the story of a British peer who once complained, “Damn it all, the fellow always makes one feel like a bloody savage.”)

But if Johnston resembles his favourite predecessors, he differs significantly in one respect. The early lives of Buchan and Massey took them all over the world, exposing them to diverse milieux and peoples. Johnston’s career has been varied, stimulating, and indisputably successful, but he has spent his entire professional life within the small world of central Canadian universities.

He was born in Sudbury, Ontario, then a rough mining town where his father ran a hardware store. A scholarship to Harvard University launched him into the academic elite: he graduated magna cum laude and was a two-time all-American hockey player. He also acquired a splinter of mystique that no amount of denial has removed: his jogging partner at Harvard, Erich Segal, reportedly used him as the model for a minor character (captain of the hockey team) in the bestseller Love Story. From Harvard, Johnston went on first to the University of Cambridge in England, then to Queen’s University, collecting law degrees at each.

At Queen’s, he developed a particular interest in two hot topics: the rapidly expanding field of securities and administrative law, and the nascent development of the law as it relates to computers. He had planned to article with a Toronto firm, but Queen’s law school had nobody on faculty with expertise in these areas and was reluctant to let him go. So the young lawyer never practised. Instead, he taught at Queen’s for two years, then moved on to the University of Toronto law school for six years, becoming a full professor. In 1974, at just thirty-three years old, he was appointed dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario.

Along the way, he married his high school sweetheart, Sharon, and the couple eventually had five daughters (all academic achievers, they include two lawyers, a doctor, an economist, and a Ph.D. in education). Meanwhile, his career continued on its meteoric arc. In 1979, still only thirty-eight, he moved to Montreal to become principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University. Through the 1980s, he thrived at McGill, bringing an esprit de corps to an institution rent by faculty rivalries and funding shortfalls. His forte was his ability to unruffle feathers, smother friction, and find compromise. McGill soon topped the Maclean’s magazine ranking of Canadian universities. He also managed to co-write a string of technical publications on corporate law and securities regulations. But his third term in the principal’s chair, when the university faced a financial crisis, was difficult. He dug into discretionary funding and left the tough belt-tightening decisions to his successor, Bernard Shapiro. In 1994, Johnston quietly retreated to McGill’s law school and returned to teaching.

His reputation had spread beyond the university world. CBC invited him to moderate the leaders’ debates during the 1979 and 1984 federal elections and the 1987 Ontario election. In 1988, the Mulroney government made him the first chair of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, and through the late 1990s federal and provincial governments put him on a plethora of boards and task forces. In the lead-up to the 1995 Quebec referendum, he co-wrote the book If Quebec Goes: The Real Cost of Separation, and co-chaired the “no” committee against Quebec sovereignty.

His most crucial invitation arose from conversations with Liberal industry minister John Manley, about how Ottawa should regulate access to the Internet. “There were all these different stakeholders we had to deal with,” recalls Manley. “Telecoms, education experts, industry, consumers; we needed somebody who could build consensus.” In 1994, he appointed Johnston to chair the Information Highway Advisory Council. Johnston plunged into the burgeoning but unfamiliar world of high tech and produced two reports that were, says Manley, “truly seminal and looked at around the world, and shaped our policies for several years.” In 1999, on the strength of his newly acquired digital know-how and contacts, Johnston became president of the University of Waterloo, an institution dominated by its engineering and computer science departments.

He proved to be a sharp-elbowed, tenacious fundraiser for a university already on a roll. His tenure at Waterloo was marked by $600 million worth of investment in research facilities and programs. Under his watch, Waterloo was consistently ranked first in the Maclean’s university survey, in the Most Innovative and Leaders of Tomorrow categories.

One big donation he missed was the $100 million Mike Lazaridis had flagged for an institution for theoretical physics. Despite Johnston’s efforts to woo Lazaridis, in 2000 the RIM president and co-CEO announced the establishment of an independent research facility called the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. According to physicist Howard Burton, the institute’s founding executive director, most Waterloo academics reacted with “frigid politeness” and “a good dollop of envy and jealousy” to the idea of a well-funded rival on their doorstep. “But David took a strikingly opposite approach,” Burton says, by working hard to smooth relations, recruit cross-appointed faculty, and help obtain government funding.

In 2008, Johnston received a call asking if he would come up with the terms of reference for a public inquiry. Prime Minister Harper had committed himself to an investigation into allegations that his Conservative predecessor, Brian Mulroney, had taken illegal payments from the German lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber, and the investigation threatened to turn into a media circus. Johnston, the careful lawyer and quiet compromiser, agreed to define the inquiry’s parameters: what questions should be asked, and which issues were out of bounds. A few weeks later, he counselled that the scope be as narrow as possible. Upon receiving the recommendation, Harper reportedly said, “Whatever we paid him for this, it wasn’t enough.” Conspicuously absent from the subsequent inquiry, chaired by Justice Oliphant, was any mention of the Airbus affair. As a result, it was too restricted to provoke another orgy of Mulroney bashing.

While Johnston was ascending the hierarchies of four universities, the office of Governor General was quietly sliding. During the latter part of the twentieth century, Rideau Hall was dullsville. Dinners were like chamber of commerce events (with beaver tail soup and maple syrup mousse as menu staples), the gardens displayed municipal rows of Dutch tulips, and the public rooms deteriorated. The magic had gone.

That changed with a trumpet blast of majesty in 1999, when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed Adrienne Clarkson, author, CBC broadcaster, former Ontario agent general to Paris, and cosmopolite extraordinaire, as Governor General. “Clarkson was the only Governor General in recent times who hit the ground running,” Christopher McCreery says. Fluently bilingual and steeped in Canadian history and culture, Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul, knew from the moment she was appointed the direction in which they wanted to take the office. Clarkson was keen to reinvent an institution that, as she put it in her 2006 memoir, Heart Matters, was “at risk of being out-of-date and irrelevant.” This would be a personality-driven regime, and Clarkson would take both her duties and herself very seriously: “I felt we could infuse history into my representing the Crown in Canada and being the guarantor of responsible government.”

From the moment Clarkson, in an eye-catching outfit by Quebec designer Marie St. Pierre, arrived in the Senate Chamber for her installation, she caused a stir. Her installation address, and every speech she gave subsequently, was packed with ideas and studded with quotations from sources as varied as French explorer Samuel de Champlain, Maritime musician Stan Rogers, Grand Chief John Kelly, and Quebec poet Jean-Guy Pilon. She urged Canadians to recognize that we are citizens not of a middle-ranking, chronically insecure power, but of a “new land that stretches to infinity.” She strove to symbolize a muscular new Canada, far removed from its British roots, although still respectful of its links to the Crown.

Official dinners now featured dishes that sounded like parodies of fusion cuisine—barbecued caribou tenderloin in a juniper tea vinaigrette, for instance, or candied Niagara plum fried wonton on a caramel-toasted soybean stick—and Saul banished non-Canadian wines from the Rideau Hall cellars. The couple replaced tired historical artworks with paintings by Lawren Harris, David Milne, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and Paul-Émile Borduas. Clarkson paid unprecedented attention to her role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, spending Christmases with troops in Afghanistan and the Gulf. During her six years in office, she travelled 150,000 kilometres per year and took part in more than 6,000 events. By the time she left office in 2005, nearly 200,000 tourists were visiting Rideau Hall each year.

It was awe inspiring, colourful—and controversial. Previous Governors General had referred to themselves as “head of state,” but Clarkson exhibited a far more imperious manner, expecting even her friends to call her “Your Excellency.” Murmured protests grew about the state visits abroad, a feature of the job since the 1920s, and about the costs. (The budget for the Governor General’s office in 2004 was $19 million, compared with $10.7 million in the more austere 1990s, and $19.8 million in Johnston’s first year on the job.) Criticism arose from the typical Canadian watch-your-pennies distrust of “show,” and from discomfort with the image she projected. Was Canada really the mega-power she described? Was the office of the Governor General really the power centre she suggested?

Tension between the viceroy and the prime minister erupted when Paul Martin was elected Liberal leader in 2003. His staff informed Clarkson that he wanted to take his oath of office on Parliament Hill, instead of at Rideau Hall as every previous prime minister had done. “I refused three entreaties,” recalls Clarkson in her memoir, including a personal appeal from Martin himself, because she detected an attempt to impose a “presidential-type” practice on Canada’s parliamentary system. Martin saw this as a challenge to his authority. The following year, a parliamentary committee cut the Governor General’s budget by $417,000, and the prime minister made no effort to defend the office. It was a deliberate slap on the wrist to the “head of state,” as Clarkson continued to call herself.

In 2005, another CBC broadcaster became Canada’s twenty-seventh Governor General. Haitian-born Michaëlle Jean was as eye-catchingly glamorous and exotic as Clarkson, and exuded a warmth that audiences loved, but she was woefully inexperienced in political dogfights. In 2008, for only the fourth time in our history since 1867, the Crown was dragged into a constitutional crisis when the three opposition parties announced their intention to defeat the newly elected Conservative minority government on a vote of confidence. Prime Minister Harper went to Rideau Hall to request that Jean prorogue Parliament for one month; she kept him waiting for two hours before agreeing to his request. One version of the meeting suggests constitutional advisers were chewing over precedent; another is that she was showing Harper who was boss. When he left, after finally getting his way, his expression was grim.

A few months later, Jean was in Paris to speak at a UNESCO forum. The international delegates were fascinated that this attractive, Haitian-born, French-speaking woman represented a former British colony. She played to their surprise, giving a mischievous smile as she said, “I, a francophone from the Americas, born in Haiti, who carries in her the history of the slave trade and the emancipation of the blacks, at once Québécoise and Canadian, and today before you, Canada’s head of state, proudly represent the promises and possibilities of that ideal of society.” It was, as Ned Franks says, a “seemingly innocuous statement.” But on the other side of the Atlantic, the Prime Minister’s Office pounced. Harper issued a statement that Queen Elizabeth II was Canada’s head of state and the Governor General was merely her representative. The government insisted all mentions of “head of state” be removed from the Governor General’s official website. Reflecting on the Paris slap-down, a senior government source says, “After three years in the job, they all have delusions of grandeur. They should read the Constitution.”

Around Ottawa, this particular tempest in a teapot was overshadowed by another issue: who would succeed Jean? Would Harper follow the set pattern of alternating French and English Canadians, or would he appoint the first Aboriginal Governor General? Was bilingualism essential? There had been a second, more minor prorogation crisis in 2009; this time, Harper did not risk being kept waiting for viceregal permission. He phoned over to Rideau Hall to inform Jean that he was going to prorogue Parliament. Would he now look for someone he could trust to support him in a constitutional crisis?

The prime minister made a smart move. For the first time in our history, an official blue-ribbon search committee was appointed to come up with a list of candidates. The committee had five criteria: the individuals should be approaching the end of their careers; have made a significant contribution to Canada; be bilingual; be committed to the institution of the Crown; and, as McCreery, who was a member of the committee, puts it, “have a level of gravitas that would give them credibility in another constitutional crisis.” After numerous consultations, the committee put forth several names, making it clear that there would be no more media stars or eye candy. The list, according to sources, included Johnston; John Fraser, master of Massey College; General John de Chastelain; General Rick Hillier, who had just retired as chief of the defence staff; and Mary Simon, a prominent Inuit leader and environmentalist. But those involved knew the PM’s choice all along: David Johnston.

When the appointment was announced, only a few discordant notes sounded, from Quebec separatists, who recalled Johnston’s ardent federalism in 1995; and from Waterloo faculty, who resented that, after their own salaries had been effectively frozen for several years, he had left the university with a payout of over $1 million. The group that was most outraged consisted of reporters who had followed the Mulroney Airbus scandal. Toronto columnist Rick Salutin suggested that Johnston’s new job rewarded his success in containing the Oliphant inquiry.

In his installation speech, Johnston demonstrated that he knew the limits of his position: he referred to himself as “the Queen’s representative in Canada.” Robert Finch, head of the Monarchist League of Canada, breathed a sigh of relief. “It really used to grate on me when previous GGs called themselves ‘head of state,’ ” he says. “The monarchy and the Governor General are part of the same institution. Who is on our coins? Our stamps? The Queen, not the Governor General, that’s who. She is our head of state.”

But head of state, as Franks points out, is “a job description, not a title.” The phrase does not appear in any of our statutes or constitutional legislation. The Queen’s own website never uses the phrase; it states that “the Queen acts as Queen of Canada, quite distinctive from her role in the United Kingdom.”

To all except fervent monarchists, this may seem like constitutional hairsplitting. Who cares? Ironically, the answer is, the Harper government. Despite the prime minister’s deep roots in Western alienation (a reaction against WASP Ontario) and his party’s eager embrace of new Canadians with no British connections, this government is monarchy mad. In the year since Johnston arrived in Rideau Hall, the federal government has ramped up Canadian identification with the royals. The latest citizenship guide is littered with references to the Queen (she scarcely featured in the previous edition). In the lobby of the building that houses the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, a portrait of the Queen has replaced two landscapes. Last August, the prefix “Royal” was restored to the Canadian navy and air force. A few weeks later, foreign minister John Baird instructed all Canadian missions abroad to hang photographs of Elizabeth II in their offices. Plans are already afoot for the Crown to be restored on the inside pages of our new passports, and for celebrations to commemorate Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee in June.

This quiet relaunch of the monarchy forms part of a larger campaign, led by a group of fierce monarchists, including Harper’s principal secretary, Ray Novak; John Baird; and Chris Champion, senior adviser to immigration minister Jason Kenney. These men make no secret of their eagerness to erase the Liberal-dominated narrative of recent Canadian history, with its emphasis on the Charter, multiculturalism, and the flag, and replace it with other, older traditions that embrace military victories and historical identification with Britain. Canadian achievements of the past half century are being expunged: the word “peacekeeping,” the concept for which Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson won the Nobel Prize, is rarely mentioned in Ottawa; and Baird has even redesigned his business card so it no longer features the flag or the name of his department’s headquarters, the Lester B. Pearson Building.

The Tories’ determination to remake Canada to suit their own tastes may come as no surprise, given their virulent aversion for all things Liberal. Nevertheless, it is an odd campaign to pursue in a country where most citizens are not of British origin, and where the idea of Canada as a “warrior nation” can rankle immigrants who have fled wars. The renewed spotlight on the Queen particularly irritates some Quebecers. “Has the Harper government decided to make francophone citizens feel like strangers in their own country? ” asks Lysiane Gagnon, Quebec columnist for the Globe and Mail.

But so far, there has been little pushback against this royalist revival. Explanations range from public apathy to the excitement generated by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit last summer; on Canada Day, a throng of 300,000 onlookers cheered them on Parliament Hill. John Fraser, who is just finishing a book about the monarchy and Canada, feels there is genuine affection for the Crown, which “has served our country well and is interlaced with our history.” The Queen, he says, stands not so much as a symbol of our colonial history, but rather as a marker of our cultural autonomy, differentiating us from Americans. He also suggests that Canada enjoys the best of the royals: “We get monarchy lite; we don’t have to deal with Fergie’s toe-sucking antics.”

Johnston shrugs off the idea that his job is being marginalized by the new emphasis on the monarch. He hosted the Will and Kate road show in Ottawa last July and says, “I think [the excitement] is about the new values this young couple brings to this institution, which is 1,000 years old.” There is no danger that he will rock the boat. Affable support for old values has been a hallmark of his career, and he remains content to let others manipulate our national symbols. Maybe he and the Harper monarchists are correct in thinking that the appearance of these Hello! Canada cover models will trigger a renewed wave of affection for the modern monarchy. William’s confident French and Kate’s leggy glamour certainly dwarfed the couple’s old-fashioned Canadian hosts. But it seems equally likely that the crowds who mobbed them on Canada Day would have done the same for Brad and Angelina. Skeptical observers such as Franks speculate that the government’s deliberate campaign to raise the distant monarch’s profile will lower still further the image of the Crown’s representative here—which would suit a prime minister who considers the office of Governor General an irritant.

Last September, in the vast ballroom of Rideau Hall, the assembled guests fidgeted nervously on the spindly gold and blue chairs. Johnston was about to officiate at an investiture ceremony for the Order of Canada. The forty-five recipients included lawyers, engineers, photographers, and doctors; they had come from Saturna Island, Saguenay, Toronto, Thunder Bay, Memramcook, and Edmonton. Two small children stared in wonder at the huge Norval Morrisseau painting in the far distance, at the front of the room. A small quartet played sombre background music under framed portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh.

At a signal, the music stopped and everyone rose to their feet; the Governor General, who serves as the Chancellor and Principal Companion of the Order of Canada, had arrived with his wife. Smiling broadly, the two almost trotted down the centre aisle. Johnston moved to the podium and began to speak in an informal manner: “I am so pleased to be here to help celebrate and encourage your work.”

It wasn’t a bad speech. “Each of you is here today because you are driven to excel in something much larger than yourself,” he told the audience. It didn’t have the erudite sparkle of Clarkson’s oratory, or the breathy élan of Jean’s speeches, studded with words like “hope,” “dreams,” and “imagination.” Johnston speaks French too awkwardly to switch effortlessly between the official languages, as his predecessors Roméo LeBlanc or Jeanne Sauvé could. He didn’t exude the aristocratic grandeur of Lord Tweedsmuir or the hauteur of Vincent Massey.

Instead, he came across as a decent, self-deprecating man. Perhaps this makes him a good figurehead for a decent and self-deprecating nation. Perhaps this represents, as Chris Champion suggests, “a return to normal.” For most of the inductees, the magic lay in the occasion itself: the thrill came from having the importance of their work recognized. Few would recall a word of His Excellency David Johnston’s speech.

This appeared in the January/February 2012 issue.

Charlotte Gray
Charlotte Gray ( is a historian whose latest book is The Promise of Canada: 150 Years—People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country.
Nigel Dickson
Nigel Dickson, an award-winning photographer, was the subject of a Royal Ontario Museum retrospective in 2010. The following year, he published a series of portraits in the book Luminato.