When you first meet Their Excellencies the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada, and Mrs. Sharon Johnston you can’t help but be enveloped by their warmth, sincerity, genuineness and their ability to share a good laugh. While they have only resided in one of Canada’s most prestigious homes, Rideau Hall for four years, the couple has a lifetime of experiences together that contribute to them connecting with Canadians across the country and people around the world.
The couple has been together for 58 years with their journey taking him to some of the most prestigious universities in the country and the world while she learned to adapt with each move. Mrs. Johnston notes they have been together since she was 13 years old and Mr. Johnston was 15 years old. Over the years they have managed to balance their careers with a busy family life. They are parents to five beautiful daughters.
Having raised a large family the Johnstons know the challenges and successes that come with rearing children and moving. As commander-in-chief of Canada, Mr. Johnston, with the full support of Mrs. Johnston, has also taken a genuine interest in military families, their well-being and the challenges they face.
As governor general and commander-in-chief, he is responsible to recognize the importance of Canada’s military at home and abroad. It is something both of them enjoy, connecting with Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members and their families. With this role he has the opportunity to have what he refers to as a meaningful conversation with soldiers. “I get a particular thrill at the ceremonies recognizing their bravery,” Mr. Johnston notes. When he is joined by Chief of the Defence Staff General Tom Lawson for the presentations he admits they are amazed. “Our CF personnel are there with their families watching and these incredibly brave men and women are hearing flattering things about themselves and how proud the country is of them.”
He notes CAF personnel are unassuming and have no idea how extraordinary they are. He enjoys speaking with the young military members and their families. “I like hearing what made them join. There is such a sense of volunteerism in new recruits,” he explains. “Conversations with young military families also leave me in awe of their pride in service. Being a soldier is one of the top most respected professions in Canada. As it should be.”
With that pride Mr. Johnston notes wearing the CAF uniform gives him a tremendous sense of pride in what he calls a remarkable organization. He also has pride when it comes to military personnel and their sense of humility.
Being the top brass for the country’s military, he has uniforms for all three elements: navy, air force and army. “I am so fortunate to be able to wear the uniform. I should mention I have three aide-de-camps, one from each element. Together they inform me which uniform to wear to each event I attend. Between you and I, I don’t think they always agree. They’re very loyal to their own element.”
Supporting military personnel and their families is an initiative close to their hearts. “Our military families face greater challenges than many other families because of the unique demands of relocation, deployment and the danger they face. I have an enormous admiration for those families that support our military members,” he says.
Early this year the couple spoke with Lisa LaFlamme, CTV’s chief news anchor about mental health. The couple mentioned their concern when it comes to military personnel living with post-traumatic stress disorder and other illness.
“One of the challenges we have with the great men and women in uniform is that there is a bit of a stiff upper lip approach to mental illness,” Mr. Johnston shared with LaFlamme.
He added, “Very often, our people in uniform feel that, for some reason, they should not be as open with mental illness as they are with physical illness. That’s something we have to overcome.”
With Remembrance Day approaching and the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Liberation of the Netherlands the couple, along with a delegation travelled to Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium this past October. While there they were made aware of the deaths of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo. Mr. Johnston called the events shocking and saddening adding along with the delegation they shared a “profound sense of sadness” for the families who lost their loved one. He added, “We are confident that our country will act with firm resolve, keeping with the values we hold dear.”
Values that hundreds of thousands of Canadian military personnel have fought for and died for over the years.
Mr. and Mrs. Johnston were both born during the Second World War. They met in the teens while attending school in Sault Ste. Marie. She was born in the Sault while he was born in Sudbury. He attended the Sault Collegiate Institute where he played hockey. The couple married in 1965 but not before each of them went off to university to pursue their education for their prospective careers. Mr. Johnston began his education at Harvard University where he specialized in securities regulation, corporation law, public policy and information technology law. Mrs. Johnston attended the University of Toronto to study rehabilitation medicine.
Their marriage marked the beginning of their moves as he worked at numerous universities: Queens University Faculty of Law, the University of Toronto’s law faculty, the University of Western Ontario Law School, McGill University and University of Waterloo.
With each position there was a move for the family and having had five daughters in seven years the Johnston family was a busy one. He is often asked if he wished he had a son, which he doesn’t. His girls kept him to task and made sure he was the best version of himself.
“Everyday they woke up and decided what I could improve on that day. Then the next day they would start over again because I had regressed,” jokes Mr. Johnston.
The couple worked hard to ensure they balanced their professional life with their family life. “My wife has her PhD in respirology and I was a university president for 27 years,” he notes. It was crucial for them to make an effort to arrange quality family time. Some of that time was spent at the family’s large dining room table. “I didn’t have a study,” shares Mr. Johnston, adding, “We all sat at the table. The children did their homework and I wrote speeches and papers along side them.”
The family also used sports to connect. At their home in Mont Tremblant, Quebec, they were a team of six on the ice. In the village they were known as “the five women and the old man,” notes Mr. Johnston. “We actually won more hockey games than we lost.” And why wouldn’t they, the girls had a great coach. Mr. Johnston has played hockey since he was a boy and while he was at Harvard University he was captain of the varsity hockey team, plus he was selected twice to the All-America Team. Along with hockey he also played football and baseball. He used his passion for sports to keep connected with his girls. The family also runs together.
“I have run a couple of dozen marathons, some with my daughters,” he says. He has participated in the Canada Army Run. This past September he opened the grounds of Rideau Hall, giving the participants in the half marathon the opportunity for a change or scenery.
As a parent he recommends finding an activity the whole family can do together. “Sports is our favourite thing,” he explains. And it is a custom that is being passed down to the next generation. “When our twin grandchildren were playing soccer at aged four we watched them. Now that they are six we are watching them find their legs at hockey camp.”
To their eleven grandchildren Mr. Johnston is known as Grandpa Book because he reads to them with Mrs. Johnston earning the name Grannie Sunrise because she gets up at the crack of dawn with them. They enjoy spending time with their grandchildren but they don’t do the “babysitting thing.”
“We love having the grandkids, but I’m not so much into the babysitting thing with them. I would rather go kayaking or ride a horse with them,” notes Mrs. Johnston. “I like getting them skiing, doing something with them rather than sitting. It’s important you find the fun in your family.”
When their girls were young the couple admits they “leaned” on people when they needed to. “I could name dozens of people who helped us raise our daughters: teachers, instructors, community members.” Hence the couple believes it takes a village to raise a child. Mrs. Johnston confesses when the girls were younger she was anxious as she learned to cope with having a young family and two parents who had careers. She survived by reaching out for help.
“It’s so important to reach out and get the help that you need,” she says. She recommends people turn to their friends and family for help and stressed that people need to find a physical outlet to deal with stress and improve their well-being. “I started walking and then running.”
Another trait Mrs. Johnston developed and honed over the years was the ability to adapt. “No matter what your spouse does for a living adaptation is important when you are faced with change. When he was in university I studied to be a physiotherapist. I got my PhD because I adapted.” Back in 1999 when the Johnstons moved from Montréal to Waterloo, Ontario they purchased a farm. It was an entirely new life on a hundred-acres for Mrs. Johnston. She managed the small horse-boarding business for 12 years. “When we moved to the country I adapted.” Although farming and horses were new to her, she seized the opportunity and suddenly she found a new a passion for herself.
As The Queen’s representative in Canada, the governor general exercises the duties of head of State. Non-partisan and apolitical, the governor general presides over the swearing-in of the prime minister, the chief justice of Canada and cabinet ministers; summons, prorogues and dissolves Parliament; delivers the Speech from the Throne; and grant Royal Assent to acts of Parliament.
Mrs. Johnston often joins her husband attending events and travelling domestic and abroad, but she also attends events on her own. With military families being close to her heart she has attended conferences dedicated to creating resources and policies to help them. She enjoys attending ceremonies where she focuses on connecting people. “I use my natural capacity to relate to people, I’m not just having tea with people to just have tea. I have tea to advance and connect people,” she notes. “When we are travelling I meet people who are innovative, empathetic and sympathetic. I reinforce what they do. I connect people and resources.”
Mr. Johnston is the 28th governor general since 1867. Since then 11 Canadians have held the position of governor general. In 1984 the office marked another notable milestone when then Prime Minster Pierre Trudeau nominated the first woman for the role: the Right Honourable Jeanne Sauvé.
The governor general has two official residences: Rideau Hall in Ottawa, and the Citadelle of Québec. Rideau Hall has been the governor general’s official residence since 1867 and the governor general’s workplace since 1940. The Citadelle of Québec is the second official residence and workplace of the governor general since 1872. These two residences are nationally significant heritage properties that are owned and managed by the federal government on behalf of all Canadians. The residences are used by the governor general of Canada to fulfill official functions. They are both open for the public to tour.
At Rideau Hall they are responsible for welcoming dignitaries and honouring Canadians, plus they host British Royalty. “The royal family is very nice. They take their duties very seriously,” explains Mrs. Johnston. Having met Kate and William she shares they are “very sweet.” “The entire royal family is remarkable really,” she noted.
Along with sports the couple enjoys cooking in the kitchen together. They usually host a spiced beef party over the holidays where Mrs. Johnston also serves her fabulous cinnamon buns. In the past they have given their staff a few days and “muddle around” in Rideau Hall’s big industrial kitchen. Something she says may not happen again because the couple did not return the kitchen to the standard the staff keep it.
Back in 2010 after Prime Minister Stephen Harper nominated Mr. Johnston for the governor general post he noted Mr. Johnston represented the best of Canada, which anyone who has met the couple could attest. Four years into their term the Johnstons are humble, friendly and down to earth. Hockey lovers at heart, strong family values and a commitment to our country the couple is modelling how they see our country: a compassionate society that works together to create generous communities.
For the cinnamon bun recipes visit www.cmfmag.ca. For more information or to visit Rideau Hall contact 613-991-4422/1-866-842-4422 or e-mail [email protected]. For more information or to visit the Citadelle of Québec please contact 1-866-936-4422 or email [email protected].
**This article was originally published in our Holiday 2014 issue**