Stephen Harper had a problem. He wanted to hold a public inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, but it needed clear terms of reference, and the business dealings of the former prime minister and the German-Canadian businessman had become a hopeless muddle. David Johnston agreed to take on the job of deciding what questions the inquiry should ask.
According to someone who knows, after Mr. Johnston gave his report to Mr. Harper and left the room, the Prime Minister told then clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch: "Whatever we paid him for this, it wasn't enough."
That was early in 2008, and from that day, the president of the University of Waterloo was on the shortest of lists to become the next governor-general.
Mr. Harper confirmed on Thursday that the 69-year-old academic and administrator will take up official duties on Oct. 1.
While it is customary for prominent public figures to praise the appointment of a new governor-general, the reaction to Mr. Johnston's ascension has bordered on the giddy.
"What a glorious day for Canada. Oh, my goodness," exclaimed Rob Prichard, a former president of the University of Toronto, who now heads up Metrolinx, the Toronto-Hamilton regional transportation authority.
Mr. Prichard has known the governor-general-designate since the former was a law student and the latter a very young law professor at U of T. He sent his friend an e-mail on Thursday morning when the news became official. "I told him I thought he was the best prepared governor-general in our history," Mr. Prichard said.
Mr. Johnston combines a mind that has traversed securities law, Quebec separatism and emerging high technologies with the formidable diplomatic skills of someone who has served as president of two universities. And he possesses what is universally described as a personality that combines unaffected warmth with boyish enthusiasm.
Amit Chakma, president of the University of Western Ontario and a former second-in-command at Waterloo, recalls the day Mr. Johnston met his mother. Mr. Johnston had checked beforehand with other members of the Chakma family, who are from Bangladesh, about their homeland's traditions.
Upon meeting Mrs. Chakma, he bent down to touch her feet in greeting. "It was very touching," Mr. Chakma said. "He went out of his way to show respect as we would."
If a typical gesture, it is far down the road for a boy who was born in Sudbury, Ont., raised in Sault Ste. Marie, and who was recruited by Harvard as much for his hockey skills as his academic brilliance.
Lewis Auerbach, a retired public servant, arrived at Harvard at the same time. He remembers Mr. Johnston as an unjockish jock.
"He was as straight as they come. … He was the kind of guy you imagined did well at Sunday school," Mr. Auerbach recalls. "But as someone said years later, as a hockey player, he was good in the corners."
Two years after leaving Harvard, Mr. Johnston married his elementary-school sweetheart, Sharon. Twenty-eight years later, he offered this brief update for a Harvard report on the Class of '63.
"The cup runneth over," he said simply. "Married for twenty-eight years to the girl I first dated at age 13. Five healthy, exuberant daughters, same job for 14 years, which I love and for which I am actually paid."
That job was president of McGill University, which Mr. Prichard believes "was clearly sliding and in urgent need of turning around," when Mr. Johnston became its head in 1979. He turned it into the top-ranked university in Canada, according to the Maclean's magazine survey. U of T, where Mr. Prichard was president, knocked McGill off that pedestal only after Mr. Johnston had left.
"I remember he called me and said, 'Rob I'm stepping down,' and I thought: "Thank God," Mr. Prichard remembers.
In those Montreal days, if you entered the Johnstons' relatively modest and overcrowded home, you would be greeted by five rambunctious girls with a gaggle of friends, with Mr. Johnston reading and writing in the midst of the din, while Sharon Johnston - whom Mr. Chakma described as "intense and informal"- either prepared dinner or burrowed in on the PhD in psychology she was taking.
"He's got good family values," said Lynton (Red) Wilson, chancellor of McMaster University. "He and his wife and his daughters are a pretty close unit."
The Johnston family overachieves. Deborah is a lawyer with Justice Canada; Alexandra is a lawyer and senior adviser to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty; Sharon is a medical doctor who also teaches medicine at the University of Ottawa; Jenifer is an economist with Environment Canada, while Catherine recently graduated with a PhD in education from Harvard University.
Two of the daughters studied in China in the early 1980s, and speak Mandarin. Another spent time in Moscow.
"My wife and I have always believed that service, whether it is to family, community, university or country, is our highest calling," Mr. Johnston said Thursday in a statement he read to reporters. "And so we are proud to have this opportunity to serve Canada and our fellow citizens."
When he was principal of McGill from 1979 to 1994, Mr. Johnston's writings focused mostly on securities law. After he left McGill, his interest shifted to the emerging Internet, which proved splendid preparation for taking on the presidency of the University of Waterloo.
Tom Jenkins is a leader of Open Text, a firm that got its start on the Waterloo campus. He recalled Mr. Johnson's efforts to persuade provincial and federal leaders in the late 1990s to spend millions to turn a campus cornfield into a research and technology park.
The plan had stalled twice in 20 years, but "David had so much belief and trust in young entrepreneurs, he convinced three levels of government to take a chance," Mr. Jenkins remembers.
Indeed, during his tenure, the Waterloo region has become a vanguard for innovation, while annual research funding for the university has doubled in the past nine years.
Although they will soon move to Rideau Hall, the Johnstons currently live on a farm in Mennonite country outside Waterloo, which Sharon runs as a horse-training facility, and where she writes historical fiction. Mr. Johnston has been known to bicycle to the office. That will stop.
The position of governor-general has evolved greatly after more than six years of turbulent minority Parliaments. Mr. Johnston's legal background may soon be put to use, if the next Parliament is as hung as the present one is.
"The government is very fortunate that he would want" the post, said Peter Hogg, one of Canada's leading constitutional scholars. But it is Mr. Johnston's personal and leadership skills, rather than his legal or policy knowledge, that Mr. Hogg said are more likely to be of use to him as governor-general. He will be guided, as well, by his Anglican faith. In another Harvard report, Mr. Johnston wrote of "a growing sense of the spiritual side of life."
Although bilingual, Mr. Johnston didn't learn French until he moved to Montreal at the age of 37. He became quite passionate about Quebec and Canadian unity, co-authoring a book on the eve of the 1995 Quebec referendum warning of the consequences for Quebec if it left Confederation.
"I know Mr. Johnston," Quebec Premier Jean Charest told reporters on Thursday. "He is a man of great stature, and I rejoice in the fact that he has been named governor-general."
Michaëlle Jean and Adrienne Clarkson as governors-general epitomized the Canada that is becoming: foreign-born, of non-European descent, in touch with the restless emerging world that is sending us new Canadians by the millions.
David Johnston represents the very best of an older order: dedicated to the principles of duty, service and the power of ideas. He embodies the old Canada that made the new Canada possible.
Those who know him assure us that it was an inspired choice.
With a report from Rhéal Séguin in QuebecReport Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter:, , ,