David Johnston, the former governor general, has a new book out called Empathy. Empathy, by his definition, is knowing someone’s need and stepping in to help. The book shines when Johnston reveals personal anecdotes. Early in the book, for example, he talks about his prowess as young hockey player. A Junior A scout came to his house, gave Johnston’s mother his hat, and she planned to make tea. The scout’s opening line was how, if Johnston played Junior A, he would not graduate high school because all his time would be spent on the sport.
Johnston’s mother quickly returned the scout’s hat and he was out the door. Johnston later attended Harvard on a three-quarter scholarship, graduated magna cum laude, went to Cambridge, and was head of two Canadian universities. He was forever grateful for his mother’s intervention. Johnston also is open about how much he has learned from his wife, Sharon, and their five daughters.
However, some of his recommendations about how empathy should become part of our lives are banal. He says we should follow The Golden Rule. Wow. He also says we should say hello to strangers and wave at bicyclists as they pass by. Both of those greetings might work on a quiet street in a rural village but not too well in large cities. And, oh by the way, he admits maybe it wouldn’t work for women.
But the most galling parts of the book are the best written by ghostwriter Brian Hanington. Johnston calls him a “magician” with words. And indeed he is. But some of his passages have no relevance to the topic at hand. One tale describes how writer-director George Lucas’s work on American Graffiti and Star Wars is all about community involvement, a stretch if there ever was one.
Johnston has recently been on the carpet for other reasons. When Justin Trudeau named him as rapporteur to investigate foreign influence in recent federal elections, I thought it was an excellent choice until I learned he and Justin are good friends and neighbours at their respective cottages in the Laurentians. I did not know he was on the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation until he resigned. That had provided another point of harmony with the prime minister. Can Johnston really keep all that at bay when he writes his report? Johnston’s name used to be pristine. His new book won’t help on the road to redemption.

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