Johnston: Answer call for a new era of civic engagement

Trust is the glue that sustains a democratic society and we must work together to protect against its erosion, David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, told a packed Alumni Hall audience Wednesday afternoon.

Johnston’s address, the third iteration of Western’s President’s Lecture Series, is part of the university’s celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial. As Western joins Canada in celebrating the nation’s 150th birthday, Johnston, who served as Dean of Western’s Faculty of Law from 1974-79, has been calling upon Canadians to mark a collective milestone by building smarter and more caring communities – places where learning, innovation, philanthropy and family can thrive.

“Democracy requires that people have a basic degree of trust in each other and in the institutions and leaders that serve them. Of course, we rely on more than faith – we have systems and laws set up to safeguard our way of life – but an important part of trust can’t be measured or enforced,” Johnston said.

“Trust arrives on foot and leaves in a Ferrari,” he added, echoing the words of Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of Canada who is now serving in that role at the Bank of England.

The sound we’re hearing today throughout much of the world, evident in the headlines we read daily, is the sound of trust leaving in a Ferrari. We are losing our trust in government, institutions, media, leaders, newcomers, NGOs and businesses, Johnston explained, adding Canada is not immune to what is happening south of the border and around the world.

The Edelman Trust Barometer, a global study which looks at public opinion, has indicated a “global implosion of trust,” finding, for the first time, Canada to be a “distruster” nation in which less than half of the population trusts its civil institutions. Around the world, trust in government has fallen to 41 per cent; 51 per cent of people in the Western trust search engines more than the media; 53 per cent of the general Western population doesn’t believe the present system is working for them, while 40 per cent of people in the U.K. believe facts matter less than authenticity and beliefs.

“What does this mean? It means the glue that cements our social contract is weakening,” Johnston said.

“We can’t be complacent. Like democracy, a healthy social contract requires our active involvement. It’s not about the few, but the many. How do we restore, reinforce and build trust in our society?”

Earlier in the day, Johnston visited Western’s campus. While there, he toured the Robarts Research Institute’s concussion research and imaging laboratories and visited the Wellness Education Centre to participate in a round-table discussion on student mental health. For her part, Sharon Johnston, BSc’79, health advocate, author and wife of Johnston, visited the Merrymount Family Support and Crisis Centre to meet with its leadership team and patrons to better understand the ways the organization helps families and children in crisis.

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During his afternoon lecture, Johnston highlighted three potential areas of focus. First, we must trust in professions. We must have faith in our educational system and we must believe in the role of citizens in building trust in government and civil institutions through participation.

“A profession is characterized by specialized knowledge that’s formally taught and obtained by experience and under supervision. The state gives it a right to a monopoly; it has a responsibility to society to serve beyond the needs of specific clients. What happens if we fail to meet our obligations under the social contract? Society will change the contract and redefine our professions for us,” Johnston explained.

We need to renew our focus on and trust in professionalism across the nation, allowing it to foster inclusiveness. What’s more, a renewed faith in education connects to trust in professions.

“Postsecondary institutions such as Western can help us build trust by redoubling their efforts to balance equality of opportunity and excellence. As the nursing grounds of our professions, universities have a special role to play,” Johnston continued.

“For generations, equality of opportunity and excellence have been core Canadian principles. We haven’t always succeeded and, indeed, have made terrible mistakes in the past, as in the case of residential schools. But we are at our best when we balance the two. We must go further. We must pursue both equality and excellence in our learning as never before. We must urgently improve access to education for underrepresented groups, while reaching out to the world and engaging with top talent. Education is an area where Canada can build trust, here at home and abroad,” he said.

As for the role of citizens in building trust in government, inclusiveness once again comes into play, Johnston added.

“The phrase ‘participatory democracy’ is redundant; democracy is by its very nature participatory. The crisis in trust means we are all being called to a new era of civic engagement. Citizens need to become active to ensure their governments serve them, not the other way around.”

Trust is a fundamentally important topic of discussion in Canada’s 150th anniversary year, Johnston stressed. Confederation was an exercise in trust building among diverse peoples. Competing interests will continue to exist, but trust was and will continue to be the glue that starts conversations and lets them build to progress, he explained.

“Trust needs to be part of the bottom line of what you do. This is a challenge but also an opportunity, because those who lead in establishing trust will thrive in the years to come.”

The President’s Lecture Series showcases personalities of national and international prominence from the realms of academia, politics, civil service, business and the arts as a means to engaging the campus and broader community in meaningful public discourse on a wide range of important topics.

Established and hosted by the Western President Amit Chakma, this public lecture series aims to provoke thoughtful discussion and debate on the most compelling ideas and issues of the day while raising the profile of the university and the exceptional alumni and friends who comprise our campus community.

In February 2015, Stephen Poloz, PhD’82 (Economics), Governor of the Bank of Canada, delivered the inaugural address; Western English professor and Killam Prize winner David Bentley delivered the second address in November 2015.