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.
Catherine Clark is the host of Beyond Politics on CPAC, airing Sunday nights at 8 p.m.