David Johnston: Lawyer, academic, Canada's new GG

David Johnston, a highly regarded academic and lawyer renowned for his keen intellect, will become Canada's 28th governor general.
David Johnston, Canada's next governor general, is seen arriving in Ottawa. ((Chris Wattie/Reuters))

David Johnston, a highly regarded academic and lawyer renowned for his keen intellect, will become Canada's 28th governor general.

At the time of the appointment, Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised Johnston, who succeeds Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean, by saying he "represents the best of Canada."

Prior to assuming the role of governor general, Johnston, 69, was president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo.

Johnston's appointment was widely lauded, but the man with a reputation as a strong consensus builder kept a low profile after the announcement of his new job.


The CBC's Leslie Mackinnon spoke to David Johnston about his life and ideas as he prepared to be sworn in as Canada's Governor General.  You can view the interview here.  (Runs 17:33)

He did go to Scotland for his first official audience with the Queen, although they had shaken hands when she was in Toronto earlier in the summer. He was also honoured by the University of Waterloo, which he had led since 1999.

Here's a look at his background and accomplishments.

Born: June 28, 1941, in Sudbury, Ont.


  • Harvard University, A.B. (1963) - studied government and international relations.
  • Cambridge University, LL.B (1965).
  • Queen's University, LL.B (1966).

Family: Johnston married his high school sweetheart, Sharon, in 1965. They reside at Chatterbox Farm near. St. Clements, Ont., northwest of Waterloo. They have five daughters — Deborah, Alexandra, Sharon, Jenifer and Catherine — and seven grandchildren.

Career (academic):

  • President and vice-chancellor, University of Waterloo (1999-2010).
  • Professor, faculty of law, McGill University (1994-1999).
  • Principal and vice-chancellor, professor of law, McGill University (1979-94).
  • Dean and professor, University of Western Ontario (1974-79).
  • Professor, faculty of law, University of Toronto (1968-74).
  • Professor, faculty of law, Queen's University (1966-68).

Government service:

  • Independent adviser to the Mulroney-Schreiber task force (2007 - 2008).
  • Founding chair of the National Round Table on Environment and the Economy (1988-1991).
  • Chair of the National Task Force on High Speed Broadband Access (2000-2001).
  • Chair of Referendum on Quebec in Canada (1995).
  • Moderated federal leaders debates (19791984).


Companion, Order of Canada (1998) — "His name is synonymous with leadership. After serving an exceptional fifteen-year term as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, he turned his considerable talents to the chairmanship of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Always open to new challenges and change, he headed the Information Highway Advisory Council, to ensure a place for Canadians in the evolving world of communications. He also co-chaired the successful 1996 United Way campaign for Greater Montreal and was elected the first non-American President of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University. This is a promotion within the Order."

David Johnston, Canada’s governor general-designate, meets the Queen alongside Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a dinner held in her honour in Toronto on July 5, 2010. ((Prime Minister's Office))

Officer, Order of Canada (1988) —"His administrative and leadership abilities as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University and as President of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada have been outstanding, and his expertise in the fields of securities regulations, corporation law and labour law is invaluable to the many committees in which he participates. He is highly regarded by his colleagues in the law profession, students, faculty and all for and with whom he serves."

Honorary degrees from: McMaster University, McGill University, University of Victoria, Algoma University College, University of Montreal, The University of Western Ontario, Queen's University, University of British Columbia, Memorial University, Bishop's University, University of Toronto, Law Society of Upper Canada, Doctor of Divinity, Montreal Theological College.


  • Cases and Materials on Corporate Finance and Securities Law (1967).
  • Computers and Law (1968).
  • Cases and Materials on Company Law (1969).
  • Cases and Materials on Securities Law (1971).
  • Business Associations (1979).
  • Canadian Companies an the Stock Exchange (1980).
  • Canadian Securities Regulation (1982, 2003, 2006).
  • Partnerships and Canadian Business Corporations Vols. 1 and 2 (1983, 1989, 1992).
  • If Quebec Goes … The Real Cost of Separation (1995).
  • Getting Canada On-line: Understanding the Information Highway (1995).
  • Cyberlaw (1997).
  • Communications in Law in Canada (2000).
  • Halsbury's Law of Canada (2007).

Trivia: A hockey star while studying at Harvard, Johnston was twice named to the All-American Hockey Team and named a member of the Harvard Athletic Hall of Fame.

Johnston was reportedly the model for the character Davey Johnston — the Harvard hockey captain — in Erich Segal's Love Story. Johnston and Segal, while studying at Harvard, would go running together.

Interview with David Johnston, Canada's incoming governor general 17:33

A prolific writer, Johnston has been nicknamed Grandpa Book by his grandchildren for his bookworm tendencies.

In his resume he includes running, hockey, skiing (cross-country and downhill) as his recreational hobbies.

His wife, Sharon, has a horse-boarding operation on their farm in Mennonite country northwest of Waterloo. On the farm's website, it says: "David runs a university while Sharon runs a farm."

What Johnston says:

"I've had the good fortune to witness Canadians' creativity and our ties to the world, as well as our diversity and our vitality. The opportunity to see these values at work across the country means a great deal to me." (To reporters in Ottawa after his formal introduction as governor general-designate)

"My mind tends to work in the future. That's one of my peculiarities." (Waterloo Region Record)

What others say about Johnston:

"He believes in the nobility of public life and could easily have been prime minister himself." — Robert Prichard, former dean of law and then president of the University of Toronto (Toronto Star 2007)

"He's as comfortable talking to the person on the street as he is talking to a head of state." — Tim Jackson, a Waterloo venture capitalist (Globe and Mail)

"He has had a track record of accomplishment and success in everything he has done. He  was a well-known and highly successful legal scholar and educator. A lot of his work was in commercial law. He understands very well how business works. He was an outstanding university administrator [and] led two of our great institutions — McGill and Waterloo — [for] a total of about 25 years in those roles. He has made important contributions to Canadian public policy and public service. He has a great understanding of who Canadians are, what makes Canada work, what this great country is all about, our values and our institutions." — Red Wilson, chancellor of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., to CBC News

"David Johnston represents the best of Canada. He represents hard work, dedication, public service and humility.  I am confident he will continue to embody these traits in his new role as the Crown's representative in Canada." — Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a release announcing the new governor general-designate.