A Former GG’s Next Contribution

5 minute read

An interview with Canada’s first Leaders’ Debates Commissioner

By Hon. Marie Charette-Poulin with Rt. Hon. David Johnston

Spending time with Rt. Hon. David Johnston is like walking into a candy store hungry. He possesses such a wealth of information about every topic under the sun whilst communicating authentic empathy and modesty. Following any discussion with the esteemed former Governor General of Canada, one leaves with a bag of "goodies," looking forward to putting pen to paper; a real treat!

When I asked him what he sees the new Leaders’ Debates Commission adding to the 2019 federal general election, he enthusiastically replied: "Debates are essential to good governance through vigorous informed elections. They are the opportunity to see and hear leaders of the parties, unscripted and unfiltered and responding to questions spontaneously. They permit the viewer to consider the temperament and authenticity of the leader.”

The establishment of an independent commission to organize leaders' debates was first considered by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, chaired by Larry Bagnell (MP representing Yukon). This committee tabled a report titled "The Creation of an Independent Commissioner Responsible for Leaders' Debates" in March 2018, and the Government of Canada formally announced the establishment of the Leaders’ Debates Commission the following October.

The Government's October announcement stated that: "The Leaders' Debates Commission will make the debates a more predictable, reliable, and stable element of federal election campaigns...The core of the mandate of the Debates Commissioner is to organize two leaders' debates for the 2019 federal general election, one in each official language‎. Other elements include:

  • selecting and establishing a seven-member Advisory Board to the Commissioner;
  • entering into contract for the production of the debates;
  • providing, free of charge, the feed for the debates it organizes;
  • engaging political parties to negotiate terms, and the media to ensure broad distribution;
  • engaging with Canadians to raise awareness about debates;
  • being the spokesperson for the Commission; and
  • following the 2019 general election and no later than March 31, 2020, providing‎ a report to Parliament outlining findings, lessons learned, and recommendations to inform the potential creation in statute of a "built to last" Debates Commission."

Former Governor General, Canadian academic, author, and statesman Rt. Hon. David Johnston was nominated, then confirmed, in the Fall of 2018 as the first Commissioner‎ of the Leaders' Debates. On March 22, 2019, he announced the members of the Advisory Board, an important step forward for the new entity. When you read the list of members*, the balance of its composition is striking, including gender, official languages, political affiliations, expertise, as well as generational and regional and cultural balance. "I want to ensure the success of our work. The best way to do this is to create a team where one member complements the other, like a jigsaw puzzle where the complete picture represents Canada in all its strength, its diversity, its complexity. We are hoping to increase‎ citizen engagement. We want a wide audience. The debates planned for October 7th in English and October 10th in French will be free to access and distribute. Yes, anyone will be able to broadcast it, for free, to stream it, to host a live viewing party. The debates will be widely distributed on television, radio, digital, and social streaming platforms to ensure access to a broad cross-section of Canadians across the country, on the platform of their choice. They will be available in sign language, closed captioning, and described video, as well as English, French, three indigenous languages, and five other languages. The debates will permit us to focus on fundamental issues linked to the future of Canada. They will reach into the essential quality of trust in our institutions."

David Johnston is the author of the well-known book "TRUST," released on October 9th, 2018. "Trust is the glue that keeps our institutions together, the grease that keeps them working effectively. The higher the trust, the more efficiently and smoothly the institutions can serve the public." He attributes his learning about the importance of trust and reliability through his first part-time job in an auto-repair garage, located in Sault Ste Marie, ON, when he was just 11 years old (which explains his use of the terms "glue and grease!"). "The supervisor and the workers trusted me, not only with the upkeep of the list of required material to be delivered every night to the train station but also with a key to the garage to gain access to it after working hours to do my job. It felt so good to be relied upon, by all these adults. I learned a lot from distinguished university professors but these mechanics taught me some [of the] most important lessons."

Today, Canada's first Debates' Commissioner sees far and wide. "We are hoping‎ that Canada can be somewhat of a model for elections which are so important to a strong democracy. We are currently in a period where traditions do not have the same sway as previously, where reliable world order in place since WWII is questioned. We need to ensure that information available to voters is reliable so that, on October 21st 2019, they want to cast their vote because they feel informed and responsible."

*Advisory board members include:

- Dr Chad Gaffield

  • Distinguished University Professor, University of Ottawa, President of the Royal Society of Canada

- Hon. Deborah Grey

  • Former Reform MP, first female Leader of the Opposition

- Mr Craig Kielburger

  • Social entrepreneur and the co-founder of WE Charity

- Mr. Jean LaRose

  • Chief Executive Officer, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network

- Ms. Megan Leslie

  • Chief Executive Officer, World Wildlife Fund Canada, former Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition (NDP)

- Hon. John Manley

  • Former Deputy Prime Minister, Liberal Cabinet Minister and Chief Executive Officer of the Business Council of Canada

- Hon. Louise Otis

  • President of the Administrative Tribunal of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development as well as President of the Administrative Tribunal of the‎ "Organisation internationale de la francophonie"


Rt. Hon. David Johnston and Hon. Marie-P. Charette-Poulin

The Right Honourable David Johnston served as the 28th Governor General of Canada between 2010 and 2017, and now serves as Canada’s first Commissioner of the Leaders’ Debates Commission. As Governor General of Canada, he founded the Rideau Hall Foundation, a charity that works to “mobilize ideas, people, and resources across the country to tap into our national spirit and realize our shared aspirations.” Rt. Hon. David Johnston is the author or co-author of over 25 books, and has been a companion of the Order of Canada since 1997. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University and Bachelor of Laws degrees from the University of Cambridge and Queen’s University, as well as honourary doctorates from over 25 universities and learning institutions in Canada, China, and India

The Honourable Marie-P. Charette-Poulin brings to the team of the Institute on Governance her experience and expertise as a former parliamentarian in the Senate of Canada, former partner with the international law firm Gowlings, now Gowling WLG, former senior public servant at the Privy Council Office, Founding CEO of a quasi-judicial federal tribunal, and former senior executive at the CBC/Radio-Canada. Her work and contributions have been recognized in Canada and abroad, including by the President of France with the "Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur". Marie holds a Bachelor of Arts (Magna Cum Laude) from Laurentian University, a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Ottawa, and a Masters in Social Sciences from the University of Montreal.

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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