Senior News Editor
At precisely 2:15 on Sept. 13, the crowd gathered in Convocation Hall fell silent as if they had been shushed by an angry teacher. There was no one at the front of the room, and even the man they were waiting to see had not yet appeared.
But within moments a short procession of photographers in military garb signaled Governor General David Johnston’s entrance into the room.
Johnston, Canada’s 28th Governor General, made a brief stop at the University of Saskatchewan as part of a national university tour. When he took the podium he described his pre-speech jitters.
He had asked U of S President Peter MacKinnon, whom Johnston calls a close personal friend, for direction and said, “The instructions were, ”˜Provide a message that is short, warm and inspiring.’ And that terrified me.”
Johnston explained his terror by sharing a story about some graffiti he saw on a hand dryer during his first month working at McGill in 1979. The graffiti read, “Press this button for a short, warm, inspiring message from your principal.”
Despite lacking resolution or a clear punchline, the story elicited laughter from the largely adult audience.
A former president of the University of Waterloo and lifelong academic who attended both Oxford and Harvard before returning to Canada, Johnston sees the importance of post-secondary education. His short speech was tailored to this idea: focusing on the role education will play in creating “a smarter, more caring Canada.”
“When we are at our best,” he said, “our most energetic and aware, we view everything we do as learning.”
During his speech Johnston complimented the campus’s architecture as well as the pioneering spirit in Saskatchewan, mentioning provincial hero Tommy Douglas to much appreciative head-nodding. Afterward, he took questions from the audience for about 10 minutes.
Most of the questions were softballs dealing with topics like how to instill a love of learning in youth (“early childhood and even pre-natal intervention”) and how good Johnston’s relationship with the opposition is (he plans to have a dinner with members of the opposition when he returns to Ottawa).
But with time for just one more question, an audience member stood to ask Johnston what he planned to do about the federal government’s plan to disband the Canadian Wheat Board.
“Just recently, a major proportion of individuals in the agriculture section of this part of the country described in a plebiscite their wish to have” the Canadian Wheat Board remain in its current capacity, he said.
“I guess my question is, how can the Governor General provide royal assent to such a bill given those circumstances?”
After pausing and then saying he couldn’t say much without “definitely crossing some lines,” Johnston said he felt it would no longer be appropriate for the Governor General to veto a bill that had passed in both the House of Commons and the Senate.
“To take it away from that particular matter, and put it in a more general context, we do have responsible government,” Johnston said. “Canada really is the birth of responsible government…. They may have had it in the States, but it took a civil war between 1860 and 1865 to solve some of those issues.
“Canada’s had responsible government since 1842, and that’s really what’s at stake” if a Governor General were to veto a bill.
photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf