A pil­lar of com­pas­sion

Ottawa Business Journal - Ottawa at Home - - GIVING BACK SHARON JOHNSTON -

Sharon John­ston, wife of the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral of Canada, has some very spe­cial child­hood mem­o­ries. Grow­ing up in Sault Ste. Marie, she had a first-hand per­spec­tive of both the abo­rig­i­nal re­serves and the Shing­wauk Res­i­den­tial School.

“My mother was a so­cial worker, and I of­ten vis­ited the re­serves with her. I spent many Sun­days hav­ing lunch at Shing­wauk be­fore join­ing the na­tive chil­dren in the dor­mi­to­ries to have what were fa­mous pil­low fights,” she re­calls fondly. “As a child, I only saw the fun – I did not see the lone­li­ness.”

That was 60 years ago, but the im­pact of those per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions re­main fresh for Mrs. John­ston When she moved to Ot­tawa in 2010 with her hus­band, Gov­er­nor Gen­eral David John­ston, she knew she wanted to fo­cus time and en­ergy on the causes im­por­tant to Canada’s Abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion.

“Once a gov­er­nor gen­eral ac­cepts the po­si­tion, he or she es­tab­lishes themes or pil­lars from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences and pas­sions,” she ex­plains. “In David’s case, this was learn­ing, in­no­va­tion, vol­un­teerism and phi­lan­thropy.”

To­gether, though, the cou­ple agreed that a shared pil­lar would fo­cus on fam­ily and chil­dren – an area in which they have a great deal of ex­pe­ri­ence, given their five daugh­ters and eight grand­chil­dren so far. That pil­lar “was a nat­u­ral for both of us,” she notes with hu­mor­ous un­der­state­ment.

“I have put my own stamp on that pil­lar by cham­pi­oning abo­rig­i­nal fam­i­lies, es­pe­cially in the area of par­ent­ing,” she says. “I have vis­ited Abo­rig­i­nal Head Start Pro­grams, shel­ters for young home­less abo­rig­i­nal women and their ba­bies, and shel­ters for home­less youth, many of whom are abo­rig­i­nal, she ex­plains. “I take a deep in­ter­est in abo­rig­i­nal ini­tia­tives that build a brighter fu­ture for all of us.”

Dur­ing her vis­its, Mrs. John­ston em­ploys her trade­mark en­thu­si­asm and com­mon touch to make con­nec­tions in the most per­sonal of ways. Re­cently, she ac­tu­ally stayed overnight at an Abo­rig­i­nal Mother Cen­tre to gain a bet­ter in­sight into the lives of the peo­ple she is try­ing to help.

And in March of this year she hosted the first ever round­table di­a­logue on abo­rig­i­nal health at Rideau Hall, with a spe­cial fo­cus on abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren, par­ents and fam­i­lies.

“I feel very pos­i­tive that our First Na­tions fam­i­lies are suc­ceed­ing,” she says. “There are fail­ures but there are also many suc­cesses. I be­lieve we should fo­cus on those.”

And what ad­vice would she of­fer to oth­ers who are con­sid­er­ing their own path to giv­ing back? “Com­pas­sion is bred from pas­sion. Ex­pend your en­ergy and time on what you love and what so­ci­ety needs.”

With that, Sharon John­ston gets back to the work of mak­ing Ot­tawa – and Canada – a bet­ter place for ev­ery­one.

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