Former CBC president Al Johnson has died in Ottawa at the age of 87. 

The longtime civil servant died Monday at a nursing home after a lengthy illness, family members confirmed. He is survived by his wife, Ruth, four children and one granddaughter.


Al Johnson, who served as CBC president from 1975 to 1982, called the public broadcaster 'the single most important institution for Canadianism outside the Parliament of Canada.' ((CBC))

Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Johnson held a number of senior positions in provincial and federal politics.

He was appointed Saskatchewan's deputy provincial treasurer in 1952, under then-premier Tommy Douglas.

In 1964, he entered federal politics as a senior official in the Department of Finance under then-prime minister Lester B. Pearson, where he helped develop the nation's medicare system.

He was appointed economic adviser on the constitution in 1968 by Pierre Trudeau, who was prime minister at the time. He later also served as the secretary of the Treasury Board and deputy minister of National Health and Welfare.

In 1975, Trudeau appointed Johnson as president of the CBC, where he focused on increasing Canadian content.

"In broadcast terms, programs which strengthen our institutions, news about national celebrations, Parliament, religious services, historical shows, music and sports events all constitute a kind of social glue of one kind or another reinforcing the sense of belonging to our country," Johnson once said, according to his official online biography.

The CBC is "the single most important institution for Canadianism outside the Parliament of Canada," he also said.

Post CBC years

Johnson's later career years were spent in academics, as a policy consultant at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and as a professor of public policy at the University of Toronto.


Al Johnson, a longtime public servant and former president of the CBC, died Monday in Ottawa after a long illness. ((Jane Johnson))

Then, in 1992, he was appointed to advise Canada's role in the transition of South Africa from apartheid to democracy. He founded the South Africa/Canada Program on Governance. In 1996, then South African president Nelson Mandela named Johnson to the Commission on the Reform and Transformation of the Public Service.

Johnson received national recognition for his contributions to public service, including the Vanier Medal in 1976. He was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1980, and a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1997.

"His independent judgment, intellectual stimulation and enormous goodwill have been invaluable to the task of developing a new public service in the transition to democratic government," the Governor General's office said at his investiture ceremony on April 16, 1997.

"In the process he has represented Canada with honour and distinction, while building confidence and optimism in the South African civil service."

In his home province, the University of Regina recognized Johnson's service when it renamed its graduate school of public policy the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School. (Thomas Shoyama is another well-known Saskatchewan public servant.)

Early days

Johnson was born in 1923 in Insinger, Sask. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Saskatchean before completing graduate degrees — including a PhD — at the University of Toronto and Harvard University.

Despite his many accomplishments, "the personal keystone" of his life was his marriage in 1946 to Ruth Hardy.

"Family for him was everything and kept him grounded," his daughter-in-law, Moira Johnson, told CBC News.

"Johnson’s personal and professional values were whole: integrity, pride in being Canadian and from Saskatchewan, instilled in his family by fondly recalled long driving trips across the country, a passion for creativity in public service and in the arts, idealism triumphant however bruised by reality, putting humanity first," his family wrote following his death.