About Al Johnson - Biography

Roots  The Saskatchewan Years   The Government of Canada Years   Public Broadcasting Years   The Professorial Years & Public Debates   International and South African Years  Dreaming No Little Dreams  





"...Till we have built Jerusalem..."

A.W. (Al) Johnson was one of Canada’s pre-eminent public servants through five careers spanning the last half of the twentieth century, associated with Premier Tommy Douglas of Saskatchewan, Canadian Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, and President Nelson Mandela of South Africa; and with public finance, administration and public policy, health, education, social security and the arts, public broadcasting, international governance, federalism and constitutional reform. Throughout, Al Johnson was a prolific analyst of government and public policy – surely the most continuously and widely published of all Canadian civil servants.  This web site brings together and makes accessible a growing selection of these writings, including classics of their kind.


A full length biography (PDF) includes additional instances from his work: that is, significant excerpts inserted are flagged within the full-length biography. It also includes references (footnotes for the quotations).

portrait of A.W. Johnson.

photo by Jane Johnson



Al Johnson was a “child of the manse” and the searing Depression years.  He was born in tiny Insinger, Saskatchewan, in 1923, the son of a Methodist minister, the Rev. Thomas Johnson, who had immigrated to Canada from England’s “dark satanic mills” and married Nova Scotian Louise Croft.   Johnson’s ideals were influenced by his parents’ unselfish, personally austere pastoral values, and by his father’s work in accord with preachers – literally and figuratively -- of the Canadian “social gospel”: J.S. Woodsworth, founding leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party and a Canadian political legend (whom Al knew as a teenager), and the young Rev. T.C. Douglas who preached during the ‘thirties to Rev. Johnson’s congregation in Wilcox, Saskatchewan.

The personal keystone of Johnson’s life was his marriage in 1946 to Ruth Hardy – daughter of Thomas Johnson’s fellow minister Ralph Hardy and Myrtle Watson, both  from Ontario.   Ruth Johnson, like Al, was born in small-town Saskatchewan, in Hafford, though brought up in interior British Columbia where she and Al met.  Ruth’s constant support, with their four children, was the private anchor to Al’s life and career. 

Following Regina College, a B.A. at the University of Saskatchewan, army service (medical discharge) and wartime work in Boeing Aircraft of Canada’s factory, Johnson graduated from the University of Toronto in 1945 with an M.A. in public administration.  Twice in mid-career he returned to university at Harvard in what is now the Kennedy School of Government, first taking a Masters degree as a Littauer Fellow  in 1950 and then in 1957-58 for a PhD in political economy.



The Saskatchewan Years

Johnson’s “first career” was as a senior civil servant in the provincial government of Saskatchewan, North America’s first democratic socialist government during the revolutionary years of Premier Tommy Douglas (1944-1961) and his successor Woodrow Lloyd (1961-64).  The Douglas government has been characterized as “not just reforming but revolutionizing Canadian understanding of the meaning of modern government. The Douglas years marked a political transformation in three respects: the creation of an expert bureaucracy, the introduction of universal social policies and the establishment of active and, on balance, profitable federal-provincial fiscal relations”.    

Johnson was recruited from the government’s adult education service to join the Budget Bureau in 1946, and appointed its head as Deputy Provincial Treasurer in 1952 – at the age of twenty-eight “Canada’s youngest deputy minister”, announced Provincial Treasurer Clarence Fines: “His example should serve as an inspiration to our young people in realizing that there is room at the top for those that have been well trained and have given outstanding service”.

From then until 1964, Johnson was closely involved with building one of Canada’s most admired and professional public administrations, and with public policy initiatives ranging from the famous introduction of universal medicare to proposing and with others planning the Wascana Centre complex of parkland, arts facilities, university and Legislature in the heart of Regina; from governance of the University of Saskatchewan to strengthening open financial accountability of the government to the legislature, and establishment of Canada’s first arts granting council – all while playing a key role in support of the Provincial Treasurer in sustaining balanced budgets year after year.  Johnson’s writings on public administration, beginning in those years, reflected as well his view of the responsibilities of senior officials to explain and educate as well as advise and administer.

More widely, Johnson’s his responsibilities made him familiar with the workings of economic markets and financial institutions; and took him into across Canada for federal-provincial fiscal and economic discussions establishing trustworthy relationships with fellow provincial government officials and premiers.  

Johnson revisited the extraordinary “Tommy Douglas years” much later as public policy analyst, historian of public administration and “biographer”, in his book “Dream No Little Dreams: A Biography of the Douglas Government of Saskatchewan” (2004).



The Government Of Canada Years

A second career opened with Johnson’s move in 1964 to the Government of Canada, attracted to behind-the-scenes of the national stage by legendary “mandarin” R.B. Bryce.  As the senior official in the Department of Finance responsible for federal-provincial relations and tax policy during the government of Prime Minister Pearson, then successively as economic advisor on the constitution to Prime Minister Trudeau, Secretary (deputy minister) to the Treasury Board and Deputy Minister of National Health and Welfare, Johnson contributed to major public policies including, as well as  establishment of comprehensive, principled fiscal equalization, reform and enhancement of federal support for provincial post-secondary education, fostering and meeting the needs of an educational revolution echoing today; a national art bank; and  the launch of medicare as a national policy, modeled on Saskatchewan’s pioneering. 

On behalf of Prime Minister Pearson, Johnson and Cabinet Secretary Gordon Robertson, with Jean Baetz, prepared a fundamental policy statement by the Government of Canada which launched in 1968 a comprehensive review process aimed at “adapting Canada’s constitutional and governmental arrangements so as to better achieve the goals of our federation”, and encompassing guarantee of individual rights in the constitution (proposed as the first step), adaptation of the national institutions of government (the second step), and reviewing the division of powers of government between the federal and provincial governments (the third step). Much of this statement is of enduring interest today. 

Prime Minister Pearson wrote to thank Johnson and sent as a memento a copy of the policy statement inscribed “In sincere appreciation for all your help in fashioning the ‘federalism for the future”.

As the review continued, Johnson was responsible for the preparation of key working papers on the constitution, on behalf of Prime Minister Trudeau and the Minister of Finance, notably on “Income Security and Social Services”, “Federal-Provincial Grants and the Spending Power of Parliament”, and “Taxing Powers and the Constitution of Canada”(1969).    No government statements since, on these issues, have been so comprehensive and forthright.

In 1973, on behalf of the Government and of the Minister of National Health and Welfare, Marc Lalonde, whose deputy minister Johnson then was, he drafted the “Working Paper on Social Security in Canada” – known as “the orange book” and still repaying consideration – which launched a comprehensive national and federal-provincial review. 

Johnson’s efforts in the early 1970s to re-orient government-wide management from (in his words at the time) “Kafka’s castle” to a more effective balance of “probity and prudence”, effectiveness and efficiency, with – a Johnson passion – public policy creativity, were informed by a consistent preoccupation with “how reforms would ‘fit’ in parliamentary government”, and paralleled by concern for the thorough education or development of senior executives (for instance, calling for a “civil service college”): all concerns which read prophetically, if perhaps ironically too, in light of the ebb and flow of administrative fashions since – ebbs and flows which Johnson himself analyzed in writings over the years.

Al Johnson and the Rt. Hon. Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Al Johnson seated behind the Rt. Hon. Pierre Elliott Trudeau at a cabinet committee meeting


Public Broadcasting Years

Moving outside the traditional civil service roles in 1975, to a third career, Johnson was appointed President and Chairman of the Board of the Canadian broadcasting Corporation.    In many ways his work at the CBC was not only an expression of long-standing love for the arts but also a return to his Saskatchewan roots when public broadcasting was new to Canada, fundamental to a burgeoning sense of nationhood and national growth: “If there hadn’t been a CBC, I wouldn’t have had any real sense of Canada, or of being Canadian, when I was growing up” – a “sense of Canada” still crucial fifty years later: “In broadcast terms, programs which strengthen our institutions, news about national celebrations, Parliament, religious services, historical shows, music and sports events all constitute a kind of social glue of one kind or another reinforcing the sense of belonging to our country”.

Yet the CBC imposed an essentially different responsibility as head and public visage of a very large broadcasting organization, highly visible, inevitably controversial at times – and uniquely dependent on artistic creativity and journalistic responsibility, with characteristically strong personalities.  In this capacity, Johnson prepared and delivered a series of speeches and writings on the Canadian importance and responsibilities of public broadcasting, journalism and the media.   The underlying themes were perhaps expressed in 1977: “I believe the CBC to be the single most important institution for Canadianism outside the Parliament of Canada”; its presidency required “a kind of optimism and, if you want, idealism”, and – a recurring theme! -- the ability “to create an environment within which creative people could flourish”.  Years later, Johnson’s leadership of the CBC was recalled by its foremost journalist as “more inspirational than bureaucratic”, expressing “that quality of caring and that almost missionary sense of the principles of public broadcasting”.



The Professorial Years & Public Debates

In 1982, Johnson “retired” to a fourth career as teacher, scholar, policy consultant and professor at Queen’s University (Skelton-Clark Fellow), then the University of Toronto as professor of public policy and public administration, and Senior Research fellow at the Government of Canada’s Centre for Management Development.  Again this was in part a return, albeit from a new perspective, not only to his own university years but also to his 1962-63 role in establishing the nascent Institute of Public Administration of Canada on a lasting national foundation, and above all to his many analyses as a career public official of public administration and public policy – “governance”.

These professorial years occasioned new writings, sometimes on highly controversial public issues of the day -- and still -- such as free trade, Canadian federalism, federal-provincial fiscal arrangements, and constitutional reform, as well as public broadcasting (freed from the constraints of the CBC presidency).   

Longer essays addressed issues such as the history of administrative reform and the nature of public management in Canada – taking up, for instance, from his classic interpretation thirty years before (during the Saskatchewan years) of “efficiency in government and business”, to analyze the proposition that “the character of public management is more likely to be found in the adjective ‘public’ than in the noun ‘management’”, through exploring “the determinants of public management”: “the role of government in contemporary society; the institutions of governance; and the environments in which governments function”.

A history of social policy in Canada discussed “the past as it conditions the present”, with Johnson writing from the special position of a professional analyst who had also been an inside observer and intimate participant in some of the key events. The government of Saskatchewan commissioned Johnson to lead a review of governance of its two universities (echoing, again, Johnson’s service as a university governor in Saskatchewan).  

The Government of Canada commissioned a report on its roles in advancing post-secondary education in a decentralized federation: evoking a vigorous analysis with  recommendations for “giving greater point and purpose to federal financing of post-secondary education and research”. 

A recurrent theme during this professorial and public career, as he stressed in testimony to Parliamentary hearings on constitutional reform, was that in regionally, culturally, linguistically diverse Canada, “the vehicles by which we develop a common consciousness are very, very precious indeed.  They are difficult to find in a country like ours, and they are precious when we find them.”



International and South African Years

Concurrently, Johnson took up the opportunity to branch into what became yet another career: in international development, first in Indonesia on behalf of the International Monetary Fund as Special Advisor on National Provincial Fiscal Arrangements (1988), then as Head of Mission on Administrative Modernization for the Canadian International Development Agency (1991), before participating in one of the great transformations of the late twentieth century -- South Africa’s rapid movement from apartheid to multi-racial democracy under the inspirational leadership of Nelson Mandela. 

In 1992 – two years before the historic elections – Mr. Mandela asked Prime Minister Mulroney to assist the people of South Africa in their preparations for democracy: Johnson was appointed as senior advisor to help decide how best Canada could assist. From this quickly grew what became the South Africa/Canada Program on Governance (PoG), with Johnson as founder and its resident special advisor for six years.  He retrospectively described PoG's essential method as "transferring the knowledge and experience of real life practitioners".   But that typically underplayed the scope of the PoG:  as others recalled, “In the program’s first years,… Dr. Johnson, working largely alone, gave considerable advice to the senior officials responsible for guiding the process of transition to democratic government, framing the country’s new constitution, and establishing a professional public service that was representative of the entire population of the country.  Subsequently…(the program) provided advice on issues ranging from how to improve service delivery, to the executive-legislative relationship and the support required for effective government decision-making, to how to link decision-making and budgeting”.  When President Mandela appointed Johnson in 1996 as a Commissioner of South Africa’s Presidential Review Commission on the Public Service, the announcement was recalled as being received with unusual applause in the National Assembly.

Al Johnson and Nelson Mandela

Al Johnson with Nelson Mandela


Dreaming No Little Dreams

In 1999, Johnson came home to Canada at age 76 truly to retire -- almost! 

Others congratulated him and remembered his careers.  Prime Minister Trudeau, as he left office, wrote to Johnson recalling that “In our social, fiscal and cultural framework you have left your personal touch and Canadians are better for it… With your wealth of background and your great heart, I know you will continue to educate Canadians about their country in various ways in the years ahead”.  Provincial ministers still quoted him, twenty years later, on federal-provincial fiscal relations being about “achieving an equilibrium in the potential for both orders of government to contribute to the enrichment of Canada – in both its national and its regional aspects – without diminishing one in favour of the other in the doing of it”.  The Premier of Johnson’s home province, Roy Romanow, spoke in 2000 to the provincial legislature upon announcement of a special chair in public policy, named for Johnson and established within his first career home, the Saskatchewan ministry of finance: “I’ve said many times, and firmly believe, that service to the public is among the most noble and worthy of professions and nobody in my estimation more clearly exemplifies those values than Al Johnson”. Canada’s Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Stéphane Dion, went out of his way to recall in 2001 “Al Johnson…was one of the greatest public servants in the history of our country”. 

Since 1997 Johnson has worn with profound appreciation the discreet button denoting Canada’s highest civil honour, Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1976 he received the Vanier Medal for distinctive leadership in public administration and public service in Canada. In 2007, the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina was renamed in honour of Johnson and his long-time friend and colleague Thomas Shoyama.  And in 2010, Johnson was awarded the Arthur Kroeger College Award for Ethics in Public Affairs. He received honorary doctorates from Carleton University (1999), Mount Allison University (1992), the University of Saskatchewan (1978), and the University of Regina (1977).

Johnson was awarded the Vanier Medal in 1976 for distinctive leadership in public administration and public service in Canada.  In 2007, the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina was renamed in honour of Johnson and his long-time friend and colleague Thomas Shoyama, and ‘dedicated to the values and excellence they embraced during their distinguished and influential careers in the public service’.  And in 2010, Johnson was awarded the Arthur Kroeger College Award for Ethics in Public Affairs.

But Johnson was not yet content – and never quiescent.  He brought his distinguished careers to a fitting public finale by returning to his beloved Saskatchewan in spirit, intellect and endeavour.  With the assistance of his colleague Rosemary Proctor, Al devoted five years to reconsideration, research, and reflection upon the Douglas government as “an ideal candidate for a history of a whole government” and “a case study of the art and the practice of governing”, as well as a case study on each of many elements of governance usually studied separately.  The result was “Dream No Little Dreams: A Biography of the Douglas Government of Saskatchewan, 1944-1961”, cited by the Canadian Political Science Association as best book of 2004: “Reading ‘Dream No Little Dreams’ creates the sensation that Harold Carter and Lord Carnarvon must have experienced when they broke through into the tomb of Tutankhamon: ‘So this is what it was like’”.

But even more, “what it is like”: a successor to Douglas as Premier of Saskatchewan and a university scholar himself, Allan Blakeney, described the work as “the best book I have read on how governments translate their goals into effectively administered policies”.

Another subtle thread weaves through this public finale, indeed wove in and out of Johnson’s whole career: the small-town boy celebrates home – not only Saskatchewan but Canada.  “Dream no little dreams” was Al Johnson’s own aspiration throughout his careers, and his exhortation.  His satisfaction was to have worked with, and to have contributed in his own ways as a professional public servant to the remarkable accomplishments of “no little dreamers” from Tommy Douglas to Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and Nelson Mandela.  Al’s characterization of Tommy Douglas’ premiership of Saskatchewan expressed– though he would never say so himself – his, and Ruth’s, own ethos: “putting humanity first”.

Al Johnson died peacefully following a long illness on November 8, 2010 in Ottawa.


“…Till we have built Jerusalem…”

by Andrew T.W. Johnson



Full Length Biography

A full length biography (PDF) includes additional instances from his work: that is, significant excerpts inserted are flagged within the full-length biography.

It also includes references (footnotes for the quotations).

pdf icon Al Johnson - full length biography

Portrait of A.W. Johnson.

Photo by Jane Johnson