Canada's new G-G has his own compelling narrative

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, October 4, 2010

Michaelle Jean was the people's governor-general, never more so than when she wore her heart on her sleeve, shedding tears for her native Haiti, or hugging a veteran at a ceremony on her last days in office.

Of David Johnston, installed as her successor on Friday, it is already clear that we are in the company of a lovely man, unassuming but highly accomplished.

As she had her own unique style, a blend of stagecraft and spontaneity, he also comes with a sense of occasion defined by a kind of homespun grace.

As she had her storyline, the girl whose family fled a country broken by tyranny and poverty, so Johnston has his own narrative as the boy from the northern Ontario towns of Sudbury and the Sault, who became a Harvard hockey star, and head of two great Canadian universities, McGill and Waterloo.

This is what Johnston was doing in his inaugural address in the Senate chamber on Friday, telling Canadians who he was, and where he came from. And he connected, big time.

It was very smart of him to bring his wife, Sharon, into it, telling the country he married his childhood sweetheart and that 46 years later, "she is my best friend, inspiration, and the wind beneath my wings."

And then, after referring to his five daughters, he departed from his text and told the anecdote of the man who asked him if he regretted having only daughters and no sons. "Sir," he said, "you have yet to meet my daughters." As the father of two girls, that sure got my vote.

And then, in the hockey nation, he told a hockey story, about the Harvard hockey coach, Ralph (Cooney) Weiland, a high school dropout from Ontario, who coached the Harvard Crimson for more than 20 years. "He was the first coach of Harvard not to have a Harvard degree," Johnston said. At his death, the church at Harvard Yard was filled to overflowing "half with old hockey players and the other half Harvard professors," in tribute to "an outstanding teacher -the hockey coach."

This was definitely off text, but it was right on message: "Cherish our teachers." You can almost hear Quebec saying, "Hey, that's a provincial jurisdiction." Never mind, it's an excellent theme for a man who has spent most of his career at two universities, learning, as he said, from his students.

In other words, it's a thematic, "learning and innovation," that comes out of his personal narrative. And so with the two other "pillars" he set for his five-year mandate, "supporting families and children," and "philanthropy and volunteerism." His overarching theme? "A smart and caring nation."

Johnston has impressive credentials in all of these aspects of the life of his community and country. On families and children, he told the story, again off text, of raising a barn in a Mennonite community in southern Ontario.

Again, on building a culture of learning and innovation, Johnston has been there at McGill and Waterloo. At McGill, he enhanced its world renown, while Waterloo now has a global R&D reputation linked to information technology icons such as Research in Motion -the Black-Berry boys came from there.

Moreover, anyone who has run one university, let alone two, knows that they are inherently dysfunctional organizations notorious for search committees and peer reviews that run on for years. Johnston had the gift of creating consensus, of taking these schools where he wanted to take them, probably while convincing colleagues it was all their idea.

And on philanthropy and volunteerism, he isn't just talking the talk, he's walked the walk. After stepping down as principal of McGill and returning to the law faculty, he chaired the Centraide campaign in Montreal out of a sense of community, and was co-chair of the Montreal No committee in the 1995 referendum campaign out of a sense of country.

It is a measure of Michaelle Jean's success in taking her role to the people that there was so much interest in who would succeed her. She set the bar high, and Johnston has already cleared it.

 
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