‘A bad weather friend’: Donald Johnston, former MP, dead at 85

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Donald Johnston, who had an illustrious career as a Canadian lawyer and politician and who worked to elevate the principles of corporate governance, has died at the age of 85.

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Johnston spent a decade in the Canadian Parliament and was also the first non-European, and only Canadian, to serve as Secretary General of the Economic Cooperation Organization, an international organization for countries that emphasize democracy and the market economy.

Friends said that throughout his career, which also included founding what became one of Canada’s largest business law firms, Johnston was known for his pro-free trade stance and his centre-left politics, but also for his sincerity as a friend.

“If you had any issues, he was more in touch with you than if things were going well,” said Don Newman, a longtime CBC news veteran in Ottawa, and now a political consultant at Rubicon Strategies, who said that he sometimes spoke on a daily basis. with Johnston in recent years.

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“He wasn’t a fair weather friend, he was a bad weather friend, which I thought was remarkable,” Newman added.

In 1973, Johnston, after approximately 10 years of practicing law in Montreal, joined Roy Heenan, and later Peter Blaikie, to found the Johnston Heenan Blaikie law firm. It became one of the largest business law firms in Canada (and imploded in 2014, although Johnston is no longer involved in its management). After Johnston entered politics and rose to cabinet positions, the firm dropped his name from the letterhead, just Heenan Blaikie, and he resigned.

In 1978, Johnston was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal MP for the Montreal riding of Saint-Henri–Westmount. He has held several positions in the firm including m Minister of State for Science and Technology and Minister of State for Economic and Regional Development under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

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Norman Bacal, the former managing partner of Heenan Blaikie from 1997 to 2013, said his clients at the firm included many famous actors and actresses, including Donald Sutherland.

Bacal recalled how other partners wrote a “fake” newsletter shortly after Johnston took up a position at the firm, which said he would always be “accessible to all clients”. Then they slipped it into a sheaf of other papers and waited.

“Don ends up picking up the phone and he’s apoplectic…because the one thing, the only thing that would have driven him crazy was the idea that he wouldn’t maintain complete independence,” Bacal said. “Of course, Roy (Heenan) had assembled a group of partners on loudspeaker and they all burst into hysterics.”

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He said the fact that Johnston, who would lead the Liberal party as president from 1990 to 1994, worked so closely with Peter Blaikie, who led the Progressive Conservative party in the 1980s, was characteristic of his attitudes. non-partisan.

In 1988, while in Parliament, Johnston briefly split from his party supporting a free trade deal with the United States and opposed the Meech Lake Accord, which ultimately failed but proposed amend the Constitution to strengthen provincial powers and declare Quebec a distinct society. He was an “independent liberal” until the end of the year, then left Parliament.

In 1990, he began his first of two terms as president of the Liberal Party.

He was very, very smart, very strategic and a damn good guy too,” said Edward Goldenberg, former chief of staff and senior policy adviser to Prime Minister Jean. Christian .

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Goldenberg said Johnston was a generous friend, often lending a house he owned in a small village in the south of France.

The next major turning point in his career came when Johnston was elected Secretary-General of the OECD, serving two terms from 1996 to 2006. During his tenure, the organization developed corporate social responsibility standards, called for ending harmful tax practices and seeking to establish metrics for comparing international education.

In his book on Heenan Blaikie, Bacal described Johnston as a man of many talents, recounting how he played contemporary hits on the piano to entertain guests over cocktails, and how he always emphasized direct confrontation rather than on the strategy of the back room, employing the motto “if there were knives, they went into the trunk.

Newman said that over the past few years, Johnston had spent much of his time at his country home in the eastern townships of Quebec and dealt with bouts of pancreatic cancer and heart disease. Lymes.

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