Not any more

Welcome, David Johnston. And thanks, Michaëlle Jean

In Canada on September 30, 2010 at 23:22

On this day, when David Johnston becomes the new Governor-General, Canadians can thank recent prime ministers for their outstanding appointments to that office.

No slight is intended to previous occupants of the post or to prime ministers who appointed them in signalling for special merit Jean Chrétien’s selection of Adrienne Clarkson, Paul Martin’s choice of Michaëlle Jean and, now, Stephen Harper’s pick of Mr. Johnston.

As Ms. Jean leaves Rideau Hall, she has earned the country’s heartfelt appreciation for a job superbly done.

When appointed, many Canadians outside Quebec said, “Michaëlle Who?” Yes, she had been a television presenter of note on Radio-Canada, but even a lot of Quebeckers don’t watch the kind of up-market shows for which she used to play host, let alone an English-speaking audience inside and beyond the province.

“What’s she ever really done?” was the sort of snide question asked at the time of her installation. The optics were good – Haitian immigrant, bilingual, good with words – but what qualifications did she possess? And that filmmaker husband of hers, Jean-Daniel Lafond, hadn’t he swum around with the nationalist/separatist crowd in Montreal?

From Day 1, when she spoke so brilliantly at her installation, in particular about reconciling the “two solitudes” of Canada, she was a star – not just because she carried herself so well and spoke so eloquently and precisely in both languages, but because her generosity of spirit, curiosity of mind and capacity to relate to people in any setting soon became the hallmark of her time in office.

When she met the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, she showed a rare empathy for their pain. When she travelled abroad, she related as an internationally minded person to people in other situations, speaking different languages. When she went to the Arctic, she ate seal meat; when she met the poor, she was never condescending; when she gathered women’s groups to Rideau Hall, she was one of them; when she handed out honours or met diplomats, she spoke to the occasion with fitting words.

And when she was called on to make the most important decision of her tenure – prorogation, as demanded by Mr. Harper – she made the constitutionally correct decision, whatever the political fallout.

She had a special concern for Haiti, the country of her birth, the country devastated by a terrible earthquake in January. She will now be a special United Nations envoy for Haiti, a task for which she will be well-prepared. Canada can thank Mr. Harper for working behind the scenes to assist her in securing this assignment.

Just as Ms. Jean stepped into the large shoes of Adrienne Clarkson, who brought intelligence, creativity and panache to Rideau Hall, so David Johnston will find following Ms. Jean no easy task.

Obviously, he cannot be her, and will not even try, but he has his own marvellous talents well-suited to this role.

Mr. Johnston is a scholar, lawyer, athlete and university administrator of distinction and duration, having been president of both McGill and Waterloo. He speaks French, knows how to handle public events, has always demonstrated fair-mindedness, never puts on airs, is inherently friendly and, should the knowledge be needed in a pinch, studied and taught constitutional law.

As Canadians get to know Mr. Johnston better, they’ll like what they see and hear, just as they did with Ms. Jean. They’ll see in him, as they did in his predecessors, admirable virtues and a desire to serve the country.

These latest governors-general, distinguished Canadians all, reflect many of the best elements of the national experience and, as such, illustrate how much better off we’d be without the British monarchy, a point to be driven home when the day comes that Prince Charles and Camilla move into Buckingham Palace.

Sadly, Canadians are not ready to see Clarkson-Jean-Johnston and people of that ilk as head of state. It would appear that, in due course, we shall have Charles and his sons and their heirs until, well, who knows when?

But we can be thankful for Ms. Clarkson and Ms. Jean and those who preceded them, and we can say with confidence: Welcome, Mr. Johnston.


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