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University of Waterloo president David Johnston. (Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail/Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail)
University of Waterloo president David Johnston. (Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail/Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail)

John Ibbitson

University of Waterloo president may have the viceregal touch Add to ...

William Leggett remembers going into a meeting that David Johnston, president of University of Waterloo, was chairing, that included about 30 European academics whom neither of them had ever met.

After introductions, "he called every individual by name correctly for the rest of the day," recalls Prof. Leggett, the former principal of Queen's University. "I wiped out at about the fourth name."

Mr. Johnston is heavily rumoured to be Prime Minister Stephen Harper's choice to replace Michaëlle Jean as governor-general. An announcement is believed to be imminent.

If Mr. Johnston is chosen, it will be his formidable skills to engage others, to build consensus and to charm that could make him the 28th governor-general of Canada.

Now a huge caveat: The parliamentary press gallery has a lamentable track record in flagging potential governors-general. Pierre Trudeau chose Ed Schreyer, after everyone thought George Ignatieff had it sewn up; Jean Chrétien was believed to favour Bob Rae but picked Adrienne Clarkson instead.

Mr. Johnston's name - his office refused a request for an interview - may only be grinding through the rumour mill for no other reason than that he's so patently qualified for the job.

The Sudbury, Ont., native captained the hockey team at Harvard, earning a spot as a minor character in a novel his dorm- and running-mate was writing at the time. Eric Segal's Love Story would become a pop-culture icon in the early 1970s.

"It was a great surprise to me," Mr. Johnston told the Sault Ste. Marie Star a few months ago, when Mr. Segal died at 72. "Life is filled with unusual things."

Mr. Johnston would go on to become a legal scholar, dean of law at the University of Western Ontario, principal of McGill University from 1979 to 1994, and then president of the University of Waterloo from 1999 to the present.

University politics can be vicious, and it is a tribute to Mr. Johnston's diplomatic skills that he served so long at both institutions, says Prof. Leggett, who returned to teaching biology after his tenure as principal of Queen's.

"He has that ability to make everyone he interacts with, whether it's over a long time or a short period, feel important," he observes.

At Waterloo, Mr. Johnston - who prefers to live in the countryside among his Mennonite neighbours - has been pivotal in leveraging the university's longstanding dominance in information technology and the presence of Research in Motion and other companies to make the region a national high-tech hub. RIM money is also helping make the university a leader in theoretical physics and global governance research.

One enthusiastic entrepreneur recently dubbed Mr. Johnston "the greatest university president on the planet."

Mr. Johnston is fluently bilingual, steeped in both French and English political culture, more than capable, as a former law professor, of handling any constitutionally sensitive challenges such as the prorogation crisis of 2008, and so politically neutral that he has moderated several leaders' debates during federal elections.

Apart from his age - Mr. Johnston is 69 and retired general John de Chastelain recently ruled himself out of contention for the job because he is too old at 72 - there is only one possible blemish on this otherwise impeccable resume.

In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed him special adviser with the mandate of drawing up the terms of reference for what would become the Oliphant inquiry into the relationship between former prime minister Brian Mulroney and businessman Karlheinz Schreiber.

Mr. Johnston elected not to include the controversy over the awarding of Airbus contracts in the mandate, on the grounds that the RCMP had already been all over the case, and had come up with nothing. Critics insist the Airbus affair should have been reopened, and that Mr. Johnston was acting as the Prime Minister's man.

Those critics don't know Mr. Johnston, maintains Peter George, who is stepping down today after 15 years as president of McMaster University.

"He has always been his own man," Mr. George maintains. "He is a man of great integrity who calls it as he sees it. People who make such allegations would be barking up the wrong tree. That's not the David Johnston I know."

Prof. George, whose only concern is that Mr. Johnston might find the role of governor-general "a little confining," predicts he would use the largely ceremonial role "to mediate or build consensus" on major public issues "to help shape a vision for Canada."

Whether Mr. Johnston will be given an opportunity to shape that vision remains to be seen. Or whether it is simply coincidence that Queen Elizabeth is visiting Waterloo next week.

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