A new Governor General, eh?

October 7, 2010
By

johnstonThe last shot in the 21-gun salute was fired off, rattling the whole of Parliament Hill like an earthquake. Four Canadian fighter jets went roaring above the Peace Tower, so loud and so close you’d swear you could reach out and touch them.

In their wake, the quiet was striking. David Johnston, the Sudbury boy turned Canada’s newest Governor General, stood on the stage, about to climb into the black carriage that would take him to Rideau Hall. While he waited, a man in the crowd piped up: “Atta boy, Dave!”

Only if he had added, “eh!” at the end would it have been a more Canadian moment.

David Johnston’s installation last week was a remarkable display of folksy Canuck charm despite all the tradition, pomp and fanfare that goes along with any governor general’s installation. It’s hard not to like the guy.

In front of Supreme Court judges, lieutenant-governors, cabinet ministers and former prime ministers, he talked about going on his first date with his wife when she was 13. After 46 years of marriage, she’s still his best friend, his inspiration and the “wind beneath (his) wings.”

He talked about his family and his five daughters, who all work in the public service, like any proud papa would. He clowned around – making faces at friends in the crowd and joking with cabinet ministers.

For a man with a thousand or so honorary degrees, he not surprisingly promoted education, but also said no degree was a mark of a man’s character. He talked about his hockey coach at Harvard University, Ralph (Cooney) Weiland, a high-school dropout from Seaforth who coached the Harvard Crimson for more than two decades.

“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,” all in tribute to “an outstanding teacher, the hockey coach.”

Johnston is an accomplished man, but comes from humble roots. His parents ran a hardware store, and his first jobs were mowing lawns, working at a Sault Ste. Marie steel plant, and as cub reporter for a local radio station.

In his speech, he made it clear innovation, education and volunteerism are things he values deeply. The only thing that might matter more to him is family – an important thing to hear from the man who now holds Canada’s highest office.

When it came time for the slow carriage ride to Rideau Hall, the mansion that will be his official residence for the next five years, he made his first order as Governor General: stop the buggy and let my grandchildren – his miracles, he calls them – in.

Johnston spoke an awful lot of service to country. And when he says it, you have to believe him. He’s giving up a half a million dollar salary from the University of Waterloo, which made him one of Waterloo Region’s highest-paid public servants, for a paycheque estimated at about $130,000.

As an outside observer, it was refreshing to see an event on Parliament Hill that had most people, from all political stripes, genuinely in agreement. His installation was as much about tradition as it was a celebration of the things we value as Canadians.

You won’t find a whole lot of people with bad things to say about him, except that he’s white and old – an establishment guy, they say. Johnston, of course, can’t do much to change that.

The governor general’s position gets criticized as a ceremonial post, part of a system foisted upon us by the British Empire. But watching the celebration on Parliament Hill last week, you couldn’t help but think, it doesn’t get much more Canadian than this.

Guelph Mercury, 10/06/10

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