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Governor General David Johnston takes part in an interview at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Thursday, November 10, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

David Johnston is a man who respects tradition, follows protocol and loves precedent. But he doesn't worship them.

Fifteen months into his term as Canada's 28th Governor-General, Mr. Johnston has shown he's cut from a different viceregal cloth – testing the boundaries of his symbolic office to make good on his pledge to help nudge the country toward the "smart and caring nation" he envisioned in his installation speech.

While his commitment to education is as widely known as it is unsurprising – he's a former law professor and university president, after all – his willingness to speak frankly, and do things differently, does not stop at that subject.

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In a wide-ranging conversation with The Globe and Mail's editorial board, Mr. Johnston explained why Canadians must cherish diversity, why health care needs a good shake – and what he talks about behind closed doors with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

On whether there should be more uniformity among those taking the citizenship oath, or a greater expression of diversity:

If I had to make a choice it would be the latter. I think it's quite appropriate in Canada that we can be hyphenated Canadians. If you ask me what kind of Canadian [I am] I'm Scottish-Canadian. I think it's attractive that we don't discourage but we encourage people to keep their language and their heritage, and to teach it to their children and their grandchildren.

The great gift of this nation is that we respect diversity, and somehow we've been able to make a nation out of diversity and allow people their expression of their identity – as long as they don't hurt somebody else. That's John Stuart Mill, I'm on safe ground there.

On improving health care:

One of the things I'll be stressing is scope of practice issues. We practise medicine very expensively, and there are professionals other than doctors who can do an increasing range of things at a lower cost and probably a greater efficiency for society.

We spend so little of our health effort on the promotion of good health. What is it, 1 per cent? It should be 5 per cent, maybe even 50 per cent. How do we deal with the problems of aging? The demographics are changing dramatically in every society. Those are important issues, and my message simply is: You expect the professionals to be the first into the field in adjusting to those changes, not the last – and not by saying, "Over my dead body will you change how I've been practising for the last 40 years."

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On consulting with Stephen Harper:

We aim to be together once every four to six weeks, and they've been meetings I've looked forward to very much. They're a little less structured than other ones I have. I have an agenda, and Mr. Harper often has an agenda, but they tend to be very much conversational. He needs to speak for himself, but I think he enjoys them. I certainly enjoy them, and I find they're a very useful thing. Very often [we discuss]the government's agenda for the next three to six months. In recent months, the international scene has been preoccupying, both in terms of foreign policy and trade policy. So [our discussions]would range from the timely, specific, the issue of the day, to much more long-range things – several discussions planning the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, for example.

On rethinking aboriginal education:

I think we have to look at models of government that work for education on reserves because what we have now is not working very well, by and large. I've been interested in some of the experience from British Columbia where a particular reservation works very closely with a particular school board to develop a curriculum that fits the language of that reservation, the employment needs of that reservation – it may be fishing here, it may be logging here, it may be mining there. And somehow within the British Columbia curriculum, that works. There's enough flexibility and room.

On public understanding of government:

I'm actually surprised by how little teaching there is done in our primary and secondary schools about our rather unusual form of government. Often, our students learn more about American government and the presidential system. Even as a dean of a law school, I'd be so surprised that students would come through, major in history or political science, and have so little understanding of our Constitution and our division of powers and our protection of rights and freedoms. We don't do as good a job as we should on that, and I hope that I can use this office to do a better job.

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On why Canadian innovation has lagged:

I think probably our universities and colleges have not been vigorous enough in producing the kind of people who go into industry and say, "How do we do things better?" Secondly, we have two economies, really: We have a resource-based economy, which is flourishing with commodity prices being where they are, but I don't think we have been adding as much value as we should add with that wonderful resource base. We've been too content to hew the rock and draw the water and ship it out, with some exceptions, but not enough exceptions. On the other hand, we have a manufacturing-service economy with some 5/95 companies – 5 per cent of your business Canada, 95 per cent business with the rest of the world – and we need more of those, but it's very competitive. What do we do about it? I think we simply have to be hungrier within the private sector, saying you constantly have to reinvent yourself.

On past sparring over who is Canada's head of state:

Our form of government has evolved over a thousand years and it hasn't been produced by a document like the U.S. Constitution that has tried to write out rules in some detail. We do have an 1867 Constitution and then we have the 1982 Constitution that left a lot of things unsaid. The role of the Governor-General is described in numerous documents including letters patent, and so these things require interpretation. My view is that I am the representative of the Queen acting in Canada in her role, and that seems to sit well.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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