Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Johnston graduated from McGill University in 1958.
Saint-Martin-d'Hères & Gières, France
Johnston studied at the University of Grenoble from 1958 to 1959.
Mount Royal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Johnston studied at the Montreal High School.
Canadian Parliament (logotype)
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (logotype)
Order of the Rising Sun
Ordre de Léopold II
Legion of Honour
Order of Canada
Donald Johnston with Vladimir Putin
International Risk Governance Council (logotype)
Johnston received his education at Canadian institutions. After graduating from Montreal High School, Johnston earned his Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Civil Law degrees from Montreal’s McGill University before winning a scholarship to the University of Grenoble from 1958 to 1959. His academic excellence has been recognized in numerous awards, including the Gold Medal of the Faculty of Law from McGill University.
He became an honorary doctor at such universities as the McGill University, the Bishop’s University, the University of King’s College, the McMaster University and the Economics University of Bratislava.
Johnston began his law career at Stikeman & Elliot. He started his own firm, Johnston, Heenan & Blaikie, in 1967, where he worked as a senior partner both before and after his ten-year stint in the Canadian Parliament. He has written many professional papers and articles about the Canadian legal system, including How to Survive Canada’s Tax Chaos, a guidebook that provides practical pointers for ordinary citizens.
Representing Canada’s Liberal Party, Johnston was first elected to public office from the Quebec district of St. Henri-Westmount in 1978. His campaign centered around the theme of fiscal restraint, and if elected, Johnston promised to promote the reduction of public debt. Johnston held various positions in the Canadian Treasury Board in which he worked on economic and regional development, science and technology, and justice issues from 1980 to 1984.
Up the Hill, Johnston’s second book, chronicles his years in the Trudeau administration. Even before working in the presidential cabinet, Johnston enjoyed a close relationship with Trudeau that dated back to 1957, and had served as Trudeau’s personal lawyer. Despite Johnston’s overall admiration for his former boss, Up the Hill exposes some of Trudeau’s “personal foibles, including his occasional social ineptitude and propensity for forgetting names,” according to Anthony Wilson-Smith in Maclean’s. Part political memoir and part policy paper, Up the Hill sparked controversy upon its publication in 1986.
January of 1988 marked a turning point in Johnston’s political career. After a prolonged dispute with party leader John Turner, Johnston quit the Liberal party caucus and finished his term in the Canadian House of Commons by sitting as an Independent. When the Liberal party then tried to block President Mulroney’s free trade policies toward the United States and chose to support the Meech Lake constitutional accord instead, Johnston was furious, according to Maclean's reviewer Michael Rose. The Meech Lake accord, Johnston feared, “would turn Quebec into a unilingual French-speaking province and weaken federal spending power”, according to Maclean’s contributor Paul Kaihla.
Johnston’s protest was interpreted in two ways by the Liberal party. Some welcomed Johnston’s departure, predicting that the caucus would achieve greater unity as a result. Others, however, believed that Johnston’s departure “was another sign of the deep divisions in the party over policy and Turner’s performance”, according to Rose. Precipitating Johnston’s resignation, Turner offered Johnston a humiliating ultimatum. He could “move to the back benches” and take a less prominent role in the party government, or leave altogether. In parting, Johnston defended his decision: “It made me realize that caucus is not now an avenue where I am likely to prevail”, he told Rose.
After his breach with the Liberal party, Johnston decided not to run for reelection in 1988 and rejoined his old law firm. He considered another run for office in 1990 thinking himself to be the very person to “address the fact that the country is fiscally out of control”, according to Kaihla. His political campaign would have been structured on a platform to control the government’s deficit spending.
Johnston served as a secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) during two terms - from 1996 to 2001, and from 2001 till 2006. Under Johnston’s guidance, the OECD became leading in establishing the Principles of Corporate Governance (now the world standard. The Organisation also defended the correction of international harmful tax practices and the international harmonization of competition policy. He also established the Education Directorate which introduced the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA), now the leading reference for international educational comparisons.
In 2006, Johnston joined the law firm Heenan Blaikie as a counsel. That firm existed till 2014.
Now he is a speaker, who considered a variety of issues, such as climate change and energy initiatives. He is also an advisor to McCall MacBain Foundation in Geneva.
Johnston represents Canada’s Liberal Party.
In his book Up the Hill politician and author outlines a plan for economic reform in Canada in which he calls for the elimination of social welfare systems, including unemployment insurance and family allowance to old-age benefits, to be replaced by a comprehensive income support system. Unique to this plan is the fact that it would be pegged to the country’s economic growth rather than to the cost of living with the aim to strike a balance between economic efficiency and social security, assuring that all those in need are cared for without bankrupting the system. Up the Hill can been seen as a reflection of Johnston’s own political ambitions.
Johnston is a member of the Mount Royal Club and the Montreal Indoor Tennis Club.
Johnston married Heather Bell Maclaren on December 11, 1965. The couple has 4 children - Kristina, Allison, Rachel and Sara.