Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Idea of Canada: Reflections by the Governor General the Right Honourable David Johnston


In a time of political carnival and polished facades, it is rare indeed to witness the honest and heartfelt musings of a public figure intent on, in his own words, baring his soul. Audiences   Tuesday evening   at the NAC were privy to Governor General David Johnston introducing his newly minted book,  The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation. Unprecedented for a sitting Governor General (with the very notable exception of the singular John Buchan), his book is a thoughtful compilation of letters written over a lifetime that, he says, crystallize many of his views on Canada.

Throughout the evening, His Excellency spoke in a remarkably unguarded manner about education, justice, First Nations issues, national unity, and the future of the country. Deftly hosted by Mark Sutcliffe, the event drew an impressive mixture of family, onlookers, and top military brass.

While Johnston stressed how important it was for a Governor General, an apolitical role, to be neutral in questions of politics, he asserted it was also crucial to unambiguously stand up for Canadian values. He followed this statement with a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet, "To thine own self be true, and... thou canst not then be false to any man." To the audience he then directed a profound question, what is the self but a set of values?

And what values does the Governor General believe are truly and distinctly Canadian? Here, Johnston joking referred to what he calls his "governor generalities." He expressed that Canadians are an honorable people of inclusion, tolerance, and peace, who use military power sparingly, and when we must we do so with full conviction. We are a nation of intelligent people who delight in self-improvement, deplore self-satisfaction, and hold an abiding concern for the common good.

The great theme of Canada, the Governor General declared, is that each of us expect our lives to become better. From the beginning we are a nation of immigrants. Thousands of years ago native people arrived on this land in search of a better life, a theme each of us share with our ancestors. The question now, His Excellency mused, is whether life will indeed continue to improve.

Johnston stated that complacency is our enemy, a real danger both to us and the United States. He continued that our two nations are the first in history to be built upon an ethical experiment. Unlike the chaotic circumstances that forged the majority of countries today, both Canada and America were deliberately founded upon certain values. In fact, Canada has been built upon a pluralism so successful that now its population often takes its responsibilities for granted - a harbinger to our potential decline. To tackle this and many other challenges of our time, Johnston pronounced that we must re-assert the values and principles that make up the moral fiber of our national identity, "I think that it begins with our children and the values we pass on... to develop our talents the best we can and to look beyond ourselves."

In reference to Canadian youth, Johnston believes the issues facing the education system are "very challenging." In a world racing forward in interconnectedness, migration, and globalization, he believes we must support the young in developing their intellectual capabilities to their utmost. To accomplish this, we must promote excellence and become "the smartest people our children expect us to be."

To impress upon us the magnitude of this generational task, the Governor General shared a favorite quote by John Buchan, "No great cause is ever lost or won, the battle must always be renewed."

Here then, resounding from the pages of David Johnston's book, is a clarion call for perennial renewal.