Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Trust for a Better Nation

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” David Johnston opened his talk with a well-selected line from Sir Walter Scott’s poetry. From the outset, these words struck a chord with those in attendance, resonating with the same disquiet shared by so many of us.


Johnston’s tone was primarily hopeful. Honesty and integrity were among the values Johnston invoked as he shared his worry of the dangerous erosion of trust in public institutions.The notion of a toxic decay of public confidence may have escaped notice were it not for the voice of a former Governor General of Canada. Johnston’s new book, Trust: Twenty Ways to Build a Better Country offers a consoling remedy for a feverish time of uncertainty.


At present, we are experiencing a seismic shift in public awareness. Many people sense political and economic instability in the world around them. As uncertainty grows in our age of technological and economic disruption, there is a growing perception that public institutions are not living up to their responsibilities. What do people do in such times of uncertainty? Yes, there is the expected draw toward conservatism. Yet history also teaches that profound distrust gives rise to calls for extreme solutions. Radical movements have often been trumpeted by demagogues with the loudest promises. Here, names go unmentioned as Johnston appeals only to principles that cultivate trust.  




What, then, are we to trust in times of upheaval? David Johnston answers simply: our values.


Timeless values and principles, Johnston reminds us, are the foundations of our national integrity. Forgetting this simple truth leads to the public distrust that causes institutions to become fragile and unstable. Johnston’s arguments are well-reasoned. He traces conditions back from our present moment to the early twentieth-century. It was during this time that we find the original foundations of peace, good will, and free trade that yielded the present flourishing among nations. These principles have since eroded along with the dissolution of Pax America.


Fortunately, Trust: Twenty Ways to Build a Better Country offers a prescription for improving our nation and global community. Johnston proposes a series of remedies which transfuse the lifeblood of integrity into our public institutions to reinvigorate our trust in them. Trust, after all, must be earned. Johnston hopes that a reawakening of our basic principles will remind us that they have carried us through a dark past, and can, once again, move us toward daylight. 


And so the arc of trust begins with us, David Johnston reminded his audience, as we remain true to our values. Johnston closed his talk as he had begun, underscoring his message with a final quote selected from Hamlet: “to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.”