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What to know about David Johnston, the new special rapporteur on foreign interference

OTTAWA — Former governor general David Johnston is the “eminent Canadian,” as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put it, who will oversee investigations into foreign interference in Canadian elections. With controversy swirling around his appointment as special rapporteur, and the official Opposition raising questions about his political loyalties, here’s a look at Johnston’s history. 

Born: June 28, 1941 in Copper Cliff, near Sudbury, Ont., to parents Dorothy Stonehouse and Lloyd Johnston, the manager of a local hardware store.

Early years: After his family moved to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Johnston attended Sault Collegiate Institute. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Harvard University, where his hockey exploits saw him named to the school’s athletic hall of fame. He even contemplated an NHL career. Instead, Johnston went on to earn bachelor of laws degrees at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. 

Academic career: Johnston stayed in academia, taking an assistant professor job in the Queen’s law faculty in 1966. He moved to the University of Toronto law school in 1968, became dean of Western University’s legal faculty in 1974 and was named principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University in 1979. He returned to a teaching role at McGill in 1994 and, five years later, move on to the University of Waterloo as its president and vice-chancellor. Johnston also served as president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and of the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec, and was the first non-American to chair Harvard’s Board of Overseers. He authored or co-authored more than 25 books, including several on securities law and early cyberlaw, and one that argued against Quebec separatism. He has more than two dozen honorary degrees. 

Public sector roles: Johnston moderated televised leaders’ debates at the provincial and federal level in the late ’70s and ’80s. He co-chaired Montreal’s “No” committee during the 1995 referendum. He also chaired various federal and provincial commissions, bodies and task forces, including: the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy; the National Task Force on High Speed Broadband Access; the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research; the federal Information Highway Advisory Council; and Ontario’s Infertility and Adoption Review Panel. In 2007, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government charged him with drafting the terms of reference of the Oliphant inquiry into former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s relationship with Karlheinz Schreiber. 

Private sector roles: He served on the boards of directors of Fairfax Financial Holdings, CGI Group, Dominion Textiles, Southam Incorporated, SPAR Aerospace, Seagram’s, Canada Trust and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. 

Governor general: Johnston became Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada in 2010 and served until 2017. He picked the motto “contemplare meliora,” meaning “to envisage a better world.” He created a new Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers, the Rideau Hall Foundation charity and scholarships tied to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Johnston was rarely outspoken but earned media attention for his criticism of the legal profession in a 2011 speech at the Canadian Bar Association’s annual meeting. In 2013, Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence vowed to remain on a hunger strike until both Johnston and then-prime minister Harper met with her. While federal officials met with Spence, Johnston declined on the basis that it was inappropriate to participate in policy discussions. They later communicated via letter. Johnston largely avoided wading into political matters, but met with Indigenous protesters from the Idle No More movement and hosted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s closing ceremonies in 2015. In 2017, toward the end of his tenure, Johnston was criticized for comparing Indigenous Peoples to immigrants during a radio interview. He led more than 50 international visits, including trips to China.

Recent years: After his time in the viceregal position came to an end, Johnston joined the Deloitte consulting firm as an executive adviser. In 2018, Trudeau appointed him to the Leaders’ Debates Commission, which organized debates between federal leaders during the 2019 election campaign. Johnston also became a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation in 2018.

Family: Johnston married his high school sweetheart, Sharon, in 1964. They have five daughters and 14 grandchildren. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2023.

The Canadian Press

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