"They tithed 10 per cent of any revenue that came into the family; it went to charitable causes, and that was the first 10 per cent," he recalled fondly in an interview at Rideau Hall as he prepared to start his My Giving Moment volunteerism campaign.
"That was the top priority, but they were not unusual. Their friends and neighbours were of the same view and they were very happy people."
The point, Johnston said, is that people from all walks of life can volunteer — not just by opening their wallets, but by giving their time and talents to helping those less fortunate.
My Giving Moment is aimed at encouraging everyone, but particularly youth, to find their "giving moment," Johnston said.
The campaign's website, mygivingmoment.ca, went up Monday and a series of print, TV and radio public interest ads will launch soon aimed at educating people about the joys of volunteering.
"We're trying to make the notion of giving something that's central to being a Canadian so it's who we are and something we simply do automatically," he said.
A recent Statistics Canada report found that while volunteerism is growing in Canada, donated hours have hit a plateau. And 10 per cent of volunteers contribute more than half the hours.
While Canadians are charitable people, Johnston said, the country's volunteers are older and aging.
"It's an issue of focus and concern," he said.
"That's the challenge for us — we think of Canada as a good and generous country and rightly so, but there's more that we can do. One is particularly concerned about passing the torch on to young people; how do you encourage young people to begin to experience the joy of giving?"
In Johnston's own large brood, the youngsters have learned by example, he said. The Johnstons and their five daughters and 10 grandchildren have long participated in the annual Terry Fox Run, he said, and that gave the children a healthy perspective about helping others from an early age.
"They were conscious that there was a Terry Fox who ran with one leg and he died and that he wanted to help other people who had cancer and even at three years old, that began to register," he said.
My Giving Moment hopes to appeal to charity-minded youth by using social media prominently, Johnston said.
"We're encouraging people to register their giving moments on the website so others can learn from them and build on them," he said. "We hope to build a momentum over the months ahead."
My Giving Moment involves corporate partners, including Canada's five largest banks, Tim Hortons, Shaw and Rogers Communications, Telus Corp. and Home Hardware.