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Her Excellency Sharon Johnston - Address to the Canadian Club of Kingston – The Ball Gown Effect

Kingston, Ontario, Wednesday, December 14, 2016


It is a special pleasure to be in the city where David finished his law studies and where we both began our careers. David taught at Queen’s University and I worked as an occupational therapist, first at Kingston General Hospital on the psychiatric floor and then at Beechgrove, the newly minted child psychiatry unit of the Ontario Hospital.

That is a long time ago.

David was planning to article with Osler Hoskins & Harcourt law firm in Toronto after Queen’s when the Dean of the law school, Bill Lederman, offered him a teaching job. That was the beginning of a lifetime career in education.

My career was shortened by fast-track reproduction. Five Johnston girls were born in seven years.

I did, however, spend many years practicing child psychiatry on my children. Our first daughter, now a human rights lawyer, was born at the Kingston General Hospital. Kingston was our first home and the place where we became parents, so it holds great sentimental importance.

In 1979, we moved to Montréal, which surprised most of our friends! But we looked at it as an amazing adventure. I’m not sure our unilingual daughters thought that while they struggled to learn French. Yet after some 20 years in Montréal, our five daughters now speak collectively a dozen languages. David and I also speak French—and truly, our lives are richer for it.

It was unexpected when the Prime Minister approached David to become the 28th governor general and for me to follow along as a spouse. We had always operated as a partnership but not as yet in public life. Universities thrive on good relationships, and I think I acquitted that part quite well. Our home and our family became an extension of David’s work. Well, so much for the family experience. I’m here to talk about the vice regal spouse.

Spouses of governors general have come in different genders, nationalities, experiences and talents. They have used the platform of the office to do good things. I’d like briefly to touch on my predecessors, whose social contributions may not be known.

Lady Byng established the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for the most sportsmanlike athlete in professional hockey. Lady Aberdeen was instrumental in the establishment of the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). And Lady Grey established the Laurentian chapter of IODE (Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire) in Ottawa.

They were British spouses with a sense of noblesse oblige.

Madame Vanier, a Canadian, helped to establish the Vanier Institute of the Family. More than 50 years later, the Vanier Institute is studying and reporting on the modern-day family that we know has changed.

Finally, a more recent viceregal couple, Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul, have brought important attention to citizenship and indigenous people since their mandate.

These examples show that spouses have used the office to support causes that were both close to their heart and representative of deeply held Canadian values.

And so it was an easy step for me to put my support and position behind mental health. I have had a lifelong belief that physical and mental health are vital requirements for a society to prosper.

My work as a young occupational therapist in Kingston made me aware that mental illness was not just affecting adults. Children were being diagnosed with mental health difficulties, too.

Almost four thousand Canadians commit suicide each year. Many of these are youths, so it is not surprising that the majority of mental illnesses have onsets before the age of eighteen yet are not diagnosed until much later.

During the 27 years David was a university president, we were quite conscious of the mental health crisis of students separated from family support.

Soon after he was appointed governor general, David was asked to choose the pillars or themes he would support during his mandate.

That same opportunity was offered to me as the spouse.

Learning, innovation, philanthropy and volunteerism were natural themes for David to champion. He had spent decades running universities or a law school.

As a theme, families and children seemed natural for me. It took many visits observing innovative best practices for families and children to realize that mental health is at the heart of every child’s and every family’s well-being.

I also became increasingly convinced that we simply must talk about this. Stigma is on the wane as the following examples show.

Clara Hughes went on her big ride across the country talking about depression despite her being a four-time Olympic gold medallist.

Bell Canada created “Bell Let’s Talk” to open up the conversation on mental health and to financially support best practices from coast to coast to coast.

Canadians have been celebrating Mental Health Week, and those with lived experience of mental illness became the Faces of Mental Illness organized by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. We will pass around photos of those Faces of Mental Illness after my speech.

Across the country, we are having open conversations.

I could talk for hours on the innovative practices I have witnessed to help those who suffer from mental health issues.

Children, adolescents, emerging adults (18-27 year-olds) public service employees, industry and our military are all facing challenges.

For the past six years I have travelled in all provinces and territories to witness innovative social practices to help the homeless, veterans, at risk youth, drug addicts, alcohol abusers and prostitutes.

I have witnessed the seamier side of life but always with compassion.

I have spent some time with the Vancouver Police Department whose officers do social intervention on a daily basis. In fact the East Side is a living laboratory for social work. Nearly one million dollars a day is pumped into this human drama.

Recently I visited Insight, the harm reduction clinic with Dr. Julio Montaner who discovered the AIDS cocktail. He described how even drug addicts are taught to carry an opioid antagonist injection in case they come across a fellow addict who has overdosed on heroine.

There are many people we care about but we are not entrusted with their life. I had to stop for a moment to digest what Dr. Montaner was saying. Despite debilitating drug use, addicts can still save another addict’s life. This has to be a profound example of human caring.

As a society, we are now examining more closely the economic and human cost of untreated mental health problems.

Such a widespread problem requires large-scale policy solutions. For example, the head of the Public Service of Canada announced that mental health in the public service would be a priority.

Yet we must reinforce that small individual actions can be game changers, too.

I call this the ball gown effect in mental health.

For most ceremonial events at Rideau Hall, ball gowns are worn as a mark of the grandness of the occasion. I have accumulated a few over six years.

Not being tall, my hems were cut off the dresses to match my size. I left these luxury fabrics in a drawer, hoping that one day there might be a use for them.

That opportunity came when I met two young women who were operating a repurpose store out of Operation Come Home, a non-profit organization for at-risk youth in Ottawa.

Today’s jewellery marries fabrics with metals and semi-precious stones to make beautiful necklaces, bracelets and brooches.

Audrey and Angela, the young jewellers, saw an entrepreneurial opportunity and came to Rideau Hall to pick over the hems, leading to their “Desirable Collection” launched in an art gallery with the help of United Way. The collection has marketed quite well.

You should know that Audrey had to care for her parents who were schizophrenic and drug addicts. She had to leave home to save herself. She now has a successful entreprise after learning the business. Talk about a story of hope!

I was speaking at the annual conference of the Canadian Psychological Society about these young jewellers, their struggles with mental health and their subsequent success. An attendee at the conference, an executive of eBay, was intrigued and contacted them to create the lead sales item for the 25th anniversary of eBay.

The ball gown effect in action!

The hems of my dresses didn’t stop there. They went flying off to Toronto to a young entrepreneur called Jasmine who was making bow ties. She was being micro-financed by Rise Asset Development, an organization brought to life with the support of Sandra Rotman, with the partnership of the Rotman School of Management and CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.)

The ball gown hems were fashioned into a sexy line she called the Governor General bow ties.

Now I would say that’s an oxymoron. David Johnston associates bad dressing with integrity.

The ball gown effect moved to the hardnosed military. That may seem like another oxymoron, but it isn’t.

I was visiting the Integrated Joint Personnel Unit at Garrison Petawawa, the unit that deals with mental health and transitioning out of the Forces.

I was disturbed to find the bland white-walled corridors that led to the counselling offices uninviting. It made the step of asking for help cold and unfeeling.

During a breakfast at Rideau Hall, I mentioned my observations to Joe Rotman, who before he passed away suddenly last year, was chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.

All who knew Joe, and his can-do attitude, have felt his loss. Having presented the Petawawa problem, Joe said consider it done.

In six months, outstanding artworks were loaned from the Canada Council Art Bank collection and are now hanging in the IJPU hallways. Sadly, Joe never got to see them, but Sandra and her daughter, Janis, were present at the opening of the art collection that is accessible to everyone on the base.

The ball gown effect was versatile enough to be used to make jewellery and bow ties and to liven up a military base. Small gestures within our reach can have a large impact.

There are broader contributions a spouse provides to make Rideau Hall a welcoming place for all Canadians.

During our almost seven years of this mandate, we have brought both sustainability and friendliness to this office.

Rideau Hall is the home for all Canadians and a fitting place to bestow the highest honours.

The Orders of Canada, of Military Merit and of Police Forces, decorations for meritorious service and bravery, medals for volunteerism, academic performance and the golden and diamond Jubilees. And awards for literature, visual arts and journalism are just a few examples of the different honours. 

The residence and grounds of Rideau Hall are open for tours, official functions, public events and skating parties.

Annual visits of the public number well over 350 000. It has been a privilege to play a minor role in honouring the achievements of Canadians and to welcome them.

I have accompanied David on scores of foreign visits that are done at the Prime Minister’s request.

These travels are made as part of the government’s people-to-people contact or soft diplomacy. There is an accompanying delegation that aligns with the objectives of the voyage. I follow a separate program centred on mental health.

The delegates come from diverse sectors representing education, business, industry, health, innovation and philanthropy. There are always a few delegates that accompany me on my program.

On our latest visit to the Middle East, a young executive from business incubator Digital Media Zone at Ryerson joined me on one of my events. He immediately saw an opportunity to bring collaboration between an Israeli and a Palestinian social enterprise, an excellent example of soft diplomacy.

As I reach the end of what will be a seven-year mandate, I am building a new platform to continue my work in mental health.

As an honorary naval captain of the Military Personnel Command, I hope to continue my mental health advocacy in the Forces. This is a soul-searching time for our military as they try to understand and combat the high rate of suicides.

Over the past six years, I have visited a dozen Military Family Resource Centres across the country, toured bases, Joint Personnel Units and spent a day at Petawawa participating in a mock military exercise along with Young Presidents as part of a transitioning strategy for ill and injured soldiers.

Our military is also developing a strategy against sexual harassment in the Forces. General Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, has made mental health in the workplace a priority.

I would like to think a governor general and spouse represent the heart of our nation during the many countrywide and foreign travels.

We have felt privileged to represent all Canadians during the past six years.

Thank you for inviting me today. Now, I’m available for all your questions. And don’t hesitate if you have some for David. He is here with me.