David Johnston: Faith has been ‘fundamental’ to my ethics

Special rapporteur David Johnston is a lay reader in his church. Photo: Rideau Hall ©OSGG
Published May 23, 2023

David Johnston had already worn many hats before being named special rapporteur on foreign interference by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March.

From 2010 to 2017 he served as the 28th Governor General of Canada. Before that he worked in academia, first as a law professor in various schools and later as dean of law at Western University, principal of McGill University and president of the University of Waterloo. He and his wife Sharon have served as honorary witnesses for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

In January, Johnston released his book Empathy: Turning Compassion into Action, which ranges over topics from the environment and pandemic to racism, inequality, gender -based violence, bullying and suicide.

The Anglican Journal spoke to Johnston in January, before his appointment as special rapporteur, on his book and his Anglican faith, but was unable to reach him for further comment after his appointment was announced. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to write a book on the need for empathy at this particular time?

Johnston’s book on empathy was published in January. Photo: Contributed

It’s a very much-needed value in our country and around the world. When I was sworn in as governor general in 2010, the title of my installation [speech] was “A Smart and Caring Nation: A Call to Service”. During the course of the time there, we set up the Rideau Hall Foundation in 2012 to amplify the reach of the office of the governor general with respect to Canadian values.

Out of that came five books. The first was The Idea of Canada. The next books were on innovation. The next book was Trust, which was spawned by my and others’ concern about diminution of trust in our public institutions, be they government, media, non-government organizations, business and so on. Then Empathy, which is compassion into action. Trust and empathy are really two sides of the same coin.

How has your Christian faith influenced your views on the need for empathy and compassion?

It’s been fundamental. It’s the foundation. I’m a lay reader in the Anglican Church. I went to college in Boston and while there took the short course at the Episcopal Theological College, which is affiliated with Harvard, to become a lay reader. The seven summers that I was in university and then in law school, I was in Sault Ste. Marie, my hometown, and I substituted for the minister who was administering to reserves in the neighbourhood of Sault Ste. Marie. That gave me a kind of encounter with Indigenous culture which was a wonderful eye-opener for me.

Empathy is dedicated to my family: my wife, my five daughters, five sons-in-law and 14 grandchildren, which has really taught me empathy. The Trust book is dedicated to children, who offer their trust implicitly in the full expectation of fairness. Children have been a very big teacher in my journey in understanding empathy and in my values, of the basic love-thy-neighbour message of Christianity.

[When] our daughter Debbie was age four, Sharon and I were on a six-month sabbatical leave. We lived in the village of Girton, a few kilometres outside of the centre of Cambridge [England] and we attended the Anglican church, a building about 1,000 years old. The third or fourth Sunday we were there, after service started, a very elderly, poorly dressed man came in on two canes and sat down on the back pew. We’d seen him before. Our daughter who had her piece of paper and her crayons was sitting beside us and drawing and she looked back at the man. She did a little more drawing, then got up and went to the back. I was a bit worried: “Where is she going? Oh well, she’s fine.”

She went in the back, sat on the pew, was there for a little bit, and she came back, sat down with me. I said, “You don’t have your paper with you, dear. You took it with you.” She said, “I gave it to my friend.” I said, “The man in the back pew?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “Why did you go out and see him?” She says, “He needed a friend. So I finished my drawing, which was a picture of me, and said, ‘This is a present so that we can be friends.’” I thought, a four-year-old reaching out to this man who was lonely and dishevelled and poor—remarkable that a child would have that kind of emotional feeling.

Is empathy enough to spur action when there are systemic barriers to equity and justice?

You start with that. Empathy is not sympathy, “I feel sorry for you.” Empathy is seeing your situation or a social situation and saying, “This is wrong” or “This is unjust” or “This is not as good as it should be. How can I do something about it?”

The arc of the book goes from individual [in] the first third, and then to family, neighbourhood, community, enterprise, regions, etc. The final third is: what do we do as a nation? I think the wrongs and the inequalities and the discrimination that we see in our social system can be cured and dealt with if we begin with an empathetic understanding— reaching out, looking beyond our immediate sphere, walking in the other person’s shoes and then attempting to make that journey for the other person better.

You talk about the need to distrust our negative opinions, avoid cynicism and assume the best in people. What would you say to someone who says that this can be used as a way of disregarding valid criticism?

A critical mind is a very important part of empathy, because you want to gather and wade through the evidence, come to some sense of what the reality is and from that reality take appropriate action. I’m not sure I’d call that a cynical approach to things, but I would call it a realistic approach.

Johnston speaks at a 2016 event in Ottawa. Photo: Shutterstock

One of [my mentors] was Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian who taught at Harvard. His most recent book at that time was Children of Light and Children of Darkness, and I remember him having us to his home with his wife—25 students from our seminar. He said, “You who are in this course and think like me share certain values where you’re optimistic about human nature and emphasize the good. That’s the light.” But he said, “We’re also children of darkness, where we should understand the darkness. The darkness is all the evil that’s around. You want to be sure that you look upon that with the same open eyes and open mind as you see the really good situations, and be able to distinguish between the two.”

That’s always stayed with me—that you don’t look at the world through rosy-tinted glasses. You look at it through clear, insightful glasses and bring critical judgement to it.

What role do you see for churches in terms of building empathy, compassion, and turning that into action?

It’s enormously important. The Anglican church has been important in my life. It helped to form my worldview. I attend church each Sunday for a variety of reasons, but one is to continue to learn, and to have a reinforcement of the most fundamental of all principles of the Christian religion, which is love thy neighbour. It’s interesting that if you look around the world, all of the great religions in one form or another have the notion of “love thy neighbour” at their heart.

One of my great heroes is Queen Elizabeth [II]. I wrote a chapter in a book about the institute of the Crown and said there were three things that I admire so much about Her Majesty. One is her natural graciousness, which you probably don’t see in formal occasions. You certainly see it in personal interactions. The second is her leadership as servant. She epitomized as well as any leader I’ve seen that leading is not being the commander-in-chief of the troops in the battlefield and leading them into battle. It’s serving one’s institutions, serving one’s people, and serving one’s neighbourhood. The third is her value [system] based on her Christian faith. I always listened to her Christmas message.

What Queen Elizabeth is saying [is] our neighbour’s not just a person next door that we like, or our family, or our community from our particular income class, etc. It’s others in particular, those with whom you don’t have a common bond and you have to reach across that valley to restore that neighbour.

Anything else you’d like to mention about empathy?

Sharon and I are both honorary witnesses to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission … The most important thing we can do for reconciliation is to provide equality of opportunity in education, to eliminate the gap between Indigenous young people and non-Indigenous young people. The best way to do that is to educate Indigenous teachers who are schooled in the particular language of the region, who would be keen students of the history and culture, good instructors [and] role models for young Indigenous people, to provide an education which gives them pride and understanding in their own heritage and also the capacity to assist their people as teachers and their country generally.

For me, that’s empathy at its best and deals with perhaps one of the two or three most challenging domestic issues we have in the country right now.


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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