06/27/2014 12:15 EDT | Updated 08/27/2014 05:59 EDT

Ontario's incoming LG says environment, culture close to her heart

TORONTO - Even though they may not always see eye-to-eye on some environmental issues, Elizabeth Dowdeswell said Friday she's happy that Prime Minister Stephen Harper tapped her to be Ontario's next lieutenant-governor.

"Well, I cannot read the prime minister's mind, but I'm delighted that he did pick me," said the future vice-regal.

The veteran civil servant and environmentalist, who's also served as undersecretary general of the United Nations, was part of a government-appointed panel that concluded Alberta's oilsands may be a big threat to the environment.

So it came as a surprise to some that the pro-oilsands prime minister would select her as Ontario's next vice-regal.

Harper values her broad range of experience in Canada and internationally, she said, which includes deputy minister of culture and youth in Saskatchewan, former assistant deputy minister of Environment Canada and the first woman to head the UN Environment Program.

Ontario's two top jobs will both be occupied by women, as the province's first elected woman premier was sworn in on Tuesday. Dowdeswell's official start date as lieutenant-governor hasn't been announced.

"I think it's very important for our young people, our girls and boys, to have role models that fully embrace all members of society," she said.

Premier Kathleen Wynne said she met Dowdeswell when she was a trustee at the Toronto District School Board, before she entered politics.

"She's very, very intelligent and I'm very happy with this decision," Wynne said in French.

Born in northern Ireland, the 69-year-old moved to rural Saskatchewan with her large family at a child. Dowdeswell started as a home economics teacher and moved up to deputy minister of culture and youth.

But she still makes her own clothes. In fact, her creations — a black collarless jacket and patterned skirt — were on display Friday as she took to the podium at Queen's Park with a beaming Lt.-Gov. David Onley by her side.

Still basking in the glow of her appointment, Dowdeswell said she wants to take time to listen to Ontarians and their concerns before deciding on what her priorities will be.

However, the environment and sustainability, education, arts and culture are issues close to her heart.

"I don't have an agenda per se, but I think I do have an understanding of how one makes those links, how one brings people together in an inclusive way," she said.

"I think if there's anything (Harper) would understand, it's that I believe that the public has a right and should have an opportunity to be part of the decision making process."

That doesn't mean their views will always be agreed upon, she added. But they do have a contribution to make and much of her life's work has been trying to find a way for them to be heard when political decisions are made, she added.

"Keep in mind that I'm not the politician, I'm not the policy-maker and consequently I will have a broad view of what I think is important for Ontarians," she said.

Her travels have given her a great appreciation for her country and the province that's been her home for half her life, Dowdeswell said.

"This is a country like no other," she said.

"Being able to be in this position, to celebrate what that means for Ontario citizens is something that comes very easily for me."

She is currently the president and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies. Prior to that she was the founding president and CEO of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

Dowdeswell was appointed as an officer of the Order of Canada in 2012 and received a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal in the same year.

She serves on a number of boards, including as the chairwoman of the board of directors of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Dowdeswell has a teaching certificate and a bachelor of science degree in home economics from the University of Saskatchewan and a master of science degree in behavioural sciences from Utah State University.

Dowdeswell, who is lieutenant governor-designate until she is sworn in, replaces Onley, who held the position for nearly seven years.

The perks include a suite of luxurious rooms at the Ontario legislature, a full staff and security detail.