The Interview: David Johnston on creating a kinder Canada

Governor General David Johnston on ice-bucket challenges, giving moments, the military, the Queen—and fixing hockey

Photograph by Blair Gable

Photograph by Blair Gable

After a distinguished academic career as dean of law at Western University, principal of McGill and president of the University of Waterloo, David Johnston was appointed Governor General in 2010. A keen observer of hockey—he captained Harvard’s varsity team—he’ll admit he worries about the culture of violence in the game. On a mission to create a kinder Canada, he’s a champion of philanthropy and most recently has challenged Canadians to “#Dare2Give” in his My Giving Moment campaign.

You have dared Canadians to discover their “giving moment.” Can you describe what that instant would look like?

A: Well, for many it would not be an “Aha!” because they do it every day. We want all Canadians who are in the custom of giving, volunteering their time, to capture that moment and say, “This was special for me and the person who received the gift,” and then say, “I’m going to dare one of my friends, colleagues, to do the same.” We hope this will ripple right across the country.

Since we’re talking about charity and hashtags and challenges, we have to acknowledge the ice bucket in the room. You did the ice-bucket challenge.

With my grandchildren.

The ALS campaign raised millions.


Some people have said ice buckets and moustaches are clever gimmicks but they’re not good reasons to donate.

I think with respect to the ice-bucket challenge, it’s a dare, it’s something edgy, and it permits one to encourage someone else to duplicate it. That’s always attractive. Our idea with our campaign was to try to ensure that giving of time, talent or treasure—old or young, rich or poor—became part of the culture, part of our DNA. I think it’s already there, but it’s to reinforce it, to extend it.

You’re on a mission to make Canada a more giving nation. What is in the way?

Partly indifference and partly complacency. We are a lucky people in this great country. I often say Canada is a solution in search of a problem. When you look at countries around the world, are there any that enjoy the healthiness of our communities, the equality of opportunity? If there are, they’re rare, and we can take that for granted. Hugh MacLennan in his last book, Voices in Time, was writing about the end of civilization. One of his heroes said, “Civilization is like a garden that is cultivated on the edge of a jungle, and if you don’t cultivate it constantly, the jungle creeps in and takes over.” I think that’s true of the civilized life we lead, and I think our greatest enemy is taking that for granted and failing to recognize we should work every day at building it up—and be conscious of those people who have perhaps not had the same good fortune and extend a hand to them.

You’ve talked about the time you spent at McGill and living in Montreal before even being made aware of people in need. In some ways the challenge is not getting people to give, it’s getting them to see.

I think that’s such an astute observation. My wife and I are very focused on mental health and two aspects of mental health. One is to overcome the stigma, to bring mental health out from the shadows into the open and realize it’s an illness like any other. In Montreal I had one of those “aha moments” or “wow moments,” but in a negative sense. We’d been there for 13 or 14 years before I co-chaired the Centraide, or United Way, campaign. I learned that one out of four boys entering school in all of east-end Montreal was unable to learn. They came from backgrounds where they simply couldn’t sit down and start learning ABC. One out of four—that opened my eyes to parts of the city I’d not seen in my very comfortable position at McGill teaching very bright students, dealing with very, very enlightened and engaged people.

There are people who volunteer tirelessly in our communities. They show up week after week and not for a tax receipt. Do you think we do enough for those people?

Never. These are the unsung heroes and so often the glue that holds families together, holds neighbourhoods together. At Rideau Hall, we’ve reinvigorated the Caring Canadian award started by [former governor general] Roméo LeBlanc more than 20 years ago to recognize people who will not be headlines in the newspaper, but they’ve been doing Meals on Wheels for 30 years, they’ve been watering the local rink for 25 years, cold night after cold night, never asking [for] more than the satisfaction of knowing more kids will skate the next day.

There’s a little bit of suspicion of people who are doing good—a cynicism.

I suppose one could argue from a psychological point of view that all giving is selfish. I go the next step and say give me more of that kind of satisfaction and selfishness and together we’ll build a pretty attractive world.

You spoke about mental health issues. Yesterday the auditor general’s report identified that soldiers can wait eight, nine months to access mental health care. As the head of the Canadian Forces, are there things you think Canada should be doing better?

Sure. Our people in uniform deserve not only our admiration but our care when care is required.These are men and women who are kind of stiff-upper-lip people. I think we need other people who are pretty acute at listening and encouraging those stiff-upper-lip people to say, “I think something’s going on there.” If you had a sore knee, you’d see your doctor or clinic to get it tended to. We’re still learning in this science of mental health what to look for, how to deal with it.

On Remembrance Day, you rededicated the National War Memorial with Princess Anne. What was it like to be there so soon after Oct. 22?

I suppose you’re not supposed to weep when you wear the military uniform, but you come very close. This one was unique because of the killing of Cpl. Cirillo at the very monument that we were there rededicating, and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and, of course, the terrible loss of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. It brought home the tragedy of senseless deaths, as those were, and the terrible tragedy of war where we have to take up arms to combat other people. When I go through a ceremony like that I’m conscious of two things. One is remembrance; the other is renewal. The remembrance is to honour people who have given their lives for our values, our freedoms. Secondly, to be reaffirmed is the importance of each of us working constantly to build that civilization.

We’re speaking of giving as a liberty. Voting is another. What about political engagement?

It’s part of the social health of the nation. I worry about it a lot, the declining levels of participation in voting at all levels of government. I was a university president for 27 years. I would have the final word to the graduates. I’d say, “Recognize that you’re remarkable people who deserve every bit of the honour we’ve bestowed on you today. But remember the silent partner, the taxpayer whose contributions have made it possible for you to get the quality of education you have. So as you’re going down the street and you see Mr. and Mrs. Everyone, taxi drivers, etc., in your mind thank them for their contribution to helping make you the person you are. And what I ask of you is: Vote. In every election. School board, municipal, regional, provincial, federal. You should take a position on those issues as your contribution back to the community.”

To judge by your Twitter feed, you’re always on the go. Are you trying to keep up with the Queen?

Well that’s impossible. Even given the fact she’s had 60-plus years in a regal position, she’s a remarkable person, beginning with just the stamina. My wife gives me a speech about once a month on, to put it politely, living within one’s energy constraints.

You’ve been critical of fighting in pro hockey. One of the things Maclean’s has been interested in is what is happening to minor hockey.

For me, that’s an important subject. It’s hockey, it’s the next generation, it’s my grandkids. I worry about two things. One is the physical violence and how it leads to injuries of a very serious and long-range kind. Two, I worry about the culture of violence, that we’re teaching our children things that are contrary to the Canadian character. Our No. 3 daughter and son-in-law are both doctors. [My son-in-law] Roger is leading a study on concussions in young people. He would say that children’s brains are different from adult brains, [and] one must be conscious of that. Those parents have twins aged seven who love hockey, but they worry about their children playing the game. I agree. My appeal is to parents to pay attention to what our children are learning in that beautiful game of hockey, and let’s be sure they learn the right lessons—the speed, the playmaking, the playing intensely within the rules but always within the rules, and having rules that don’t promote the head shots, sticking and fighting.

One of my kids plays competitive hockey. The debate is, “Should there be hitting for kids of that age?”

My general point to that is “later rather than sooner.” If we’re going to keep bodychecking, and there’s a good argument to do that, develop it later and develop it for people who want to play at the elite level. The finest athletic contest that I’ve watched in the past 50 years has been the Canadian and U.S. women’s teams playing hockey. They play the game, I think, as the rules should be, and they play it with such intensity and such competitiveness and such great levels of skill. I love those contests.

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