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Donald Johnston speaks at the Economic Club of Toronto on Sept. 30, 2004. Mr. Johnston died in hospital in Cowansville, Que., on Feb. 4, following an operation.Aaron Harris/The Globe and Mail

Donald Johnston, a leading federal cabinet minister in the 1980s, a confidant of Liberal prime ministers and the first Canadian to lead the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has died at the age of 85.

A policy wonk who preferred ideas over the rough and tumble of politics, Mr. Johnston rose from humble roots to help found an influential Montreal law firm and became close to prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien. He ran for leadership of the Liberal Party in 1984 but came in third in a slate of seven.

Although he was close to power, Mr. Johnston was frequently not an insider when it came to the political direction, leaning to the right when the party leaned left, once admitting that “I was out of line economically with the mainstream of the party.”

“You’d call him a business Liberal, a breed which has almost completely disappeared,” said Don Newman, the former broadcast journalist and a long-time friend of Mr. Johnston.

“He was totally dedicated to ideas,” said Peter Nicholson, an economic adviser and strategist who worked with Mr. Johnston in Ottawa and at the OECD. “He had an enormous intellectual taste. He had an intuition as to where the world was headed and knew what was important in the blizzard of information.”

Mr. Johnston and his wife, Heather, are all smiles after he declared his intention to run for the leadership of the Liberal Party in Ottawa on March 8, 1984.Andy Clark/UPC

Donald James Johnston was born in Ottawa on June 26, 1936, the second son of Florence (née Tucker) and Wilbur Johnston. Although Mr. Johnston went on to significant professional and financial success as a lawyer, politician and international figure, his early years in the Ottawa Valley were modest.

“I came from a rural background. A 40-acre farm. A half dozen cows. A few pigs. It was not at all a luxurious upbringing,” he recalled in a 2006 magazine interview. “People think I’m a pinstriped Westmount lawyer but that’s not where I came from.”

Mr. Johnston’s father was a self-educated man who was a flying officer in the First World War, a jack-of-all-trades who worked on survey teams in the Far North and in Alaska, and then moved to Montreal where he worked for McGill University as supervisor of athletic facilities.

After attending the High School of Montreal, Mr. Johnston began an arts degree at McGill University but took advantage of an opportunity to transfer directly to law school after two years. He befriended Leonard Cohen and actually shared a flat with the future singer-songwriter above a café near the McGill campus when the two were in law school. Mr. Cohen’s legal studies ended quickly but the two remained in touch over the years.

Graduating in 1958, Mr. Johnston was awarded the faculty Gold Medal and got a call from John Turner, the future Liberal leader, who invited the young Mr. Johnston to join the Montreal law firm of Stikeman Elliott.

In 1972, Mr. Johnston and his friend Roy Heenan decided to found their own law firm. They were joined later by Peter Blaikie, a leading Progressive Conservative, to form what eventually became the law firm of Heenan Blaikie. (The firm grew to 500 lawyers before disbanding in 2014). Mr. Johnston was an expert in taxation law and developed tax shelter strategies that formed the foundation of the Canadian film industry.

Mr. Johnston waves to supporters at the Civic Centre in Ottawa during the Liberal convention on June 15, 1984.Gary Hershorn/UPC

One of those early cinematic ventures was a low-budget horror film called Seizure, the directorial debut of Oliver Stone, which sank quickly after receiving terrible reviews. Mr. Johnston got credit as an executive producer.

Mr. Johnston also befriended Pierre Trudeau, meeting him in 1957 on a trip to Africa organized by the World University Service of Canada. Mr. Johnston became Mr. Trudeau’s personal lawyer, helping him with the family business inherited from Mr. Trudeau’s father. Though Mr. Trudeau had the reputation of an intellectual and dilettante, Mr. Johnston quickly realized that the future prime minister was also a careful businessman who was thrifty, sometimes to excess, according to Trudeau biographer John English.

The two men became close. Mr. Johnston later drew up the marriage contract for Pierre and Margaret when they wed in 1971.

“He was fond of Pierre as a person so when he entered politics it was because of Pierre,” Mr. English recalled.

In 1978, Mr. Johnston ran in a by-election in the safe Liberal riding of Westmount (later St. Henri-Westmount) and entered the Trudeau cabinet in 1980 when the Liberals returned to power after the defeat of the Joe Clark government. Mr. Johnston held a series of portfolios including president of the powerful Treasury Board, responsible for the anti-inflation wage control program. He later held portfolios for science and technology and regional economic development.

Yet despite being a senior minister, Mr. Johnston sometimes felt frozen out of decision-making by the Prime Minister’s Office, complaining that he was never consulted before the government announced the $1.7-billion takeover of the Canadian oil assets of Petrofina.

Mr. Nicholson, who first met Mr. Johnston as member of a task force attempting to save the East Coast fishing industry, said that Mr. Johnston was often frustrated by the political wrangling involved in regional issues. “He was only interested in rational solutions. He had no time or talent for the raw politics.”

Following Mr. Trudeau’s retirement in 1984, Mr. Johnston ran to succeed him as Liberal leader but came in a distant third to John Turner and Mr. Chrétien at the convention that followed. He then served as minister of justice in the brief Turner government, which was defeated by the Conservatives under Brian Mulroney.

John Turner leads the way, followed by Mr. Johnston and Agriculture Minister Eugene Whalen following a meeting between the three Liberal leadership candidates and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa on April 12, 1984.The Canadian Press

In the turbulent period that followed, Mr. Johnston found himself in opposition and at odds with fellow Liberals. He opposed the Meech Lake constitutional accord and favoured the proposed U.S. free trade agreement. Eventually, he split with the party and sat as an independent Liberal, but he didn’t run again in the 1988 election, ending his career as an elected politician.

Mr. Johnston returned to his legal practice at Heenan Blaikie, where Mr. Trudeau had also hung up his legal shingle after leaving politics. But Mr. Johnston remained close to Mr. Chrétien and after his election as Liberal leader, Mr. Johnston became president of the Liberal Party of Canada, helping it rebuild in the runup to the 1993 election that saw Mr. Chrétien become prime minister.

Once in power, Mr. Chrétien backed Mr. Johnston to lead the OECD, a plum international position that had traditionally been held by a European. With the support of the U.S., which was anxious for reform at the Paris-based organization, Mr. Chrétien embarked on a lobbying campaign for Mr. Johnston. “I don’t think there was a head of government of an OECD country Chrétien didn’t talk to,” said Edward Goldenberg, Mr. Chrétien’s former chief of staff.

The campaign succeeded and in 1986, Mr. Johnston began a five-year stint at the organization. “For Donald, it was a really fulfilling job,” his wife, Heather, recalls.

But his initial years at the OECD were not easy, according to Jocelyne Bourgon, the former Clerk of the Privy Council who was Canada’s ambassador to the OECD from 2003 to 2007. “The fact he brought in some people with him very early on created some tensions with member countries.”

He also arrived with the mindset of a cabinet minister who could go to his deputy minister and get a policy implemented. “In a multilateral organization, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t turn to a deputy and make it so.” Ms. Bourgon said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Johnston was appointed to a second term as secretary-general and succeeded in modernizing the organization, focusing on issues like taxation, education and corporate governance while increasing the OECD’s outreach to emerging economies. After leaving the OECD, he returned to Canada, continuing to consult and teach. He and his wife split their time between their home in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, a cottage in Nova Scotia and a house in the South of France.

Mr. Johnston was also a talented pianist, who played by ear, whether it was at home or Liberal political events. He composed a piece of music years ago called Montreal, which was arranged and played by the McGill Symphony at a concert in 2019.

Mr. Johnston received honorary degrees from McGill, Bishop’s University, University of King’s College and McMaster University and by the Economic University of Bratislava in Slovakia. He was also chair of the McCall-MacBain Foundation from 2007 to 2017.

He was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2008 and was awarded France’s Légion d’honneur in 2012. He was also awarded the Grand Order of the Rising Sun by Japan.

Mr. Johnston died in hospital in Cowansville, Que., on Feb. 4, following an operation.

He leaves his wife, the former Heather Bell Maclaren, whom he married in 1965, and by daughters Kristina, Allison, Rachel and Sara, and four grandchildren.