Photo: Rideau Hall
Former Governor General David Johnston Explores a World of Kindness in “Empathy”
The legal scholar and university president suggests concrete actions to help individuals, communities and countries to flourish / BY Dene Moore / February 1st, 2023
David Johnston grew up near Sudbury in Copper Creek, Ont., the second of three children in a modest, hard-working family.
His father managed a hardware store, and the future governor general started working when he was 12 years old, “because if I needed a new pair of blue jeans or a bicycle, it was pretty clear I had to earn the money for it,” Johnston says in an interview from his home in Ashton, Ont., a quiet farming community about 40 kilometres southwest of Ottawa.
Johnston was a high-achieving student, but he loved hockey and aspired to play in the NHL one day. When he was about 15, it was rumoured a scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs would be at one of his hometown games.
“It was a big deal, and the day before I got a call from a man named Dan Taylor, the owner of a sporting goods store – a man I didn’t know well – who said, ‘Come to the store a couple of hours before the game. I’ve got a present for you,’” the 81-year-old recalls. “It was a new pair of skates. Now, I had never had a new piece of equipment of any kind. Even my sticks were often hand-me-down.” Johnston scored three goals that night. “It was all the skates,” he says with a laugh.
He didn’t get scouted by the Leafs, but it was an early lesson in kindness, a quality Johnston believes has the power to transform people, communities and the world, and one he explores in his new book, Empathy, co-authored with writer Brian Hanington. A former dean of law at Western University, former principal of McGill University and currently the president of the University of Waterloo, Johnston served as the governor general, the Queen’s representative in Canada, from October 2010 to October 2017. He was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1988 and elevated to a companion of the Order in 1997, the highest level of recognition.
Part memoir and part societal self-help manual, Empathy illustrates the power of kindness and compassion with snippets from Johnston’s life as a husband, father and grandfather, a legal scholar and a Canadian representative on the world stage. Married for more than 60 years to his wife, Sharon, they have five daughters and 14 grandchildren, to whom Johnston dedicates the book for teaching him that “compassion is the potent foundation of happiness, progress, and meaning.”
It is the latest of more than two dozen books authored or co-authored by Johnston and the fifth in a series that originated from his time in the governor general’s office with the aim of building a smarter and more caring Canada. The previous installation was Trust: Twenty Ways to Build a Better Country, released in 2018, and The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation, released in 2016.
In his latest book, the former governor general touches on everything from climate change to volunteerism, the war in Ukraine and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s investigation of the history of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. He examines what individuals, communities and a country can do if they use empathy to tackle some of the greatest challenges of our times.
Johnston says he wrote about empathy because it’s something he wishes people understood better and practiced more. Ultimately, the book is a practical manual that explains the concept and, at the end of each chapter, he presents real ways readers can employ it. In the appendix, he and Hanington list dozens of books and films that expand on the book’s themes.
“What it means really is very simple: it’s kindness, it’s compassionate action,” he says. “Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is, ‘I feel sorry for you.’ Empathy is, ‘I see your situation and I walk together with you to improve it.’”
Empathy has become a common word for kindness and civility, “and Heaven knows, if any time in history needs kindness and civility and respect for the dignity of others, it’s today,” he adds.
As for his hockey aspirations, Johnston did attract attention from a Junior A scout at age 14, but his mother put an end to that.
“During his first encounter with my mother, after she had taken his hat but before she had offered tea, the man unwisely let it slip that most kids trying out would not have time to both play at the Junior A level and finish high school. The focus would have to be on sport,” he writes in the book. “The gentleman’s hat was quickly returned, and no tea was served. The interview was over. My mother, as always, was looking out for my best interests, beginning with my education.”
As for Hockey, Johnston did play at Harvard University, where he was a first-team All American in his junior and senior years, and where he has been inducted into the Harvard Athletic Hall of Fame. It’s just one of many charming personal stories that enliven Johnston’s book.