David Johnston: Thank you for an ‘extraordinary, humbling experience’

As his term ends, Canada’s Governor General writes about the Canadians who touched him—and why we need The Queen

Canada's Governor General David Johnston at Rideau Hall in Ottawa April 13, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Canada’s Governor General David Johnston at Rideau Hall in Ottawa April 13, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

As one of the oldest public offices in Canada, the institution of governor general is by definition deeply Canadian and continually evolving. Serving in this position for the past seven years has been a constant, stimulating learning experience, and I would like to take this opportunity to offer two interrelated thoughts on this important office and the country it serves.

My first point is this: institutions matter, including that of governor general. Our institutions are a reflection of the values that bind us as Canadians, and they are essential to building the fairer, more just and prosperous country we desire. As governor general, I have represented Her Majesty the Queen who, as Canada’s Head of State, shares distinct but complementary responsibilities with the House of Commons and the Senate in ensuring responsible government. While not perfect, this shared, balanced form of parliamentary democracy, which I find quintessentially Canadian, provides both the flexibility and the stability to find common ground among competing interests within our diverse population. During my mandate, I have exercised constitutional duties on The Queen’s behalf, including summoning and dissolving Parliament, granting Royal Assent and reading the Speech from the Throne.

Having a formal, non-partisan Head of State who has the ability to ensure Canada always has a government in place that has the confidence of Parliament is essential to our democracy. In Canada, the government rules while the Crown reigns, and the fact that the Crown is represented by an individual—by The Queen, and in Canada by her representative—helps Canadians connect on a personal level with this important part of our democracy. That each governor general is a human being with loved ones, a previous career and a personal story, as well as a special way of seeing this country, also gives a unique focus to each mandate while reminding us, as Her Majesty once said, that individual people matter more than theories and that we are all subject to the rule of law.

All of which brings me to my second thought on the office of governor general and on Canada: individuals matter. Throughout my mandate, I was constantly reminded of the contributions of my predecessors to both the progress of Canada and the evolution of the office. Indeed, their legacies are found in cities and towns throughout this country. At the official residences of Rideau Hall and the Citadelle of Québec and in visits to communities across Canada and around the world, my wife, Sharon, and I have tried to build on the work of our predecessors by encouraging Canadians to build a smarter, more caring nation in myriad ways.

In the same vein, I think of the thousands of Canadians in communities large and small from coast to coast to coast who are making this a better country every day. I could tell thousands of stories about their accomplishments and generosity, so let me focus on just a few of the young Canadians I met, who represent the bright future of this country and are giving back in extraordinary ways.

I think of young Bryden Hutt, an elementary school student I met at Meadowfields Community School in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Despite facing health issues of his own, Bryden received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for raising more than $35,000 for the Children’s Wish Foundation so that other children with illnesses could see their dreams come true. (I should add: children across Canada owe Bryden a debt of gratitude for “Bryden’s law,” the “legislation” he drafted while visiting Rideau Hall, stipulating that all children should eat chocolate three times daily!)

I also think of the members of the Feathers of Hope youth group, with whom I met in Thunder Bay in March 2016 and who had just released a report with recommendations on improving Indigenous representation on juries and the justice system in Ontario. Think for a moment about how impressive that is: young people from First Nations communities across northern Ontario working together to reform the province’s justice system. When I hear that young Indigenous people are the fastest-growing segment of Canada’s population, I feel great hope for our future.

These are just two examples of young individuals working together to help others by strengthening the institutions that serve all Canadians. Sharon and I likewise served in the hope of building a better country and strengthening this essential institution which serves it, and if we have achievements to speak of, it is because of all those who helped along the way. Our love and respect for Canada and its people have only grown throughout this extraordinary, humbling experience.


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