01/29/2015 12:47 EST | Updated 03/30/2015 05:59 EDT

Governor General David Johnston says Downtown Eastside inequality is 'unacceptable'

The Governor General of Canada David Johnston says the lack of equality and opportunity in communities like Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is 'unacceptable' and Canadians have a responsibility to do something about it.

Johnston is in town to deliver a keynote address at the Vancouver Board of Trade on Canada's relationship with the Asia-Pacific region, as well as to visit a number of programs aimed at tackling mental health challenges in communities like the Downtown Eastside.

In a one-on-one interview with CBC Vancouver host Andrew Chang, Johnston said the country made great strides in recognizing and treating mental illness back in the 1970s when he was principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University in Montreal. But that those efforts have also lead to new problems.

He said that the transition from incarceration to medication when dealing with mental illness is partly to blame for homelessness and crime in Canadian communities.

"Mental institutions under the jurisdiction of McGill University took the bars off the windows and we began ... to move to using medication to deal with the symptoms and sometimes the causes of mental illness," he said.

"One of the consequences of doing that is [it] encouraged people who were mentally ill to be back in the community, and of course many people on the streets are people who are mentally ill — very often not taking their medicine or the medicine's not working very well."

On Saudi Arabia

The Governor General arrived in Vancouver from Saudi Arabia where he was paying his respects to the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who died January 23 at the age of 90.

​​Chang asked Johnston how he reconciles Canada's relationship with Saudi Arabia, given its abysmal record on human rights.

"Saudi Arabia has been an important ally of Canada and it's a country that has been very important for peace in a very troubled part of the world — the Middle East," he said.

"Certainly the human rights issue, or issues, is a matter of concern ... but like so many jurisdictions in the world, they develop in different ways at their own pace."

"I'd like to think, with respect to the strongest fundamental values of Canada — freedom of expression, of association, opportunities in education, rule of law, respect for human rights, tolerance, inclusivity — these are lessons we can pass on to the rest of the world, not in way of preaching to them but showing that these things can work very well to build a civil society."

On politics in Canada

Johnston said he has visited Saudi Arabia dozens of times since being appointed governor general in 2010. 

When asked how this role has changed the way he views politics, Johnston said he's come to realize what a compassionate country Canada is.

However, he said he is concerned too many Canadians are taking their democratic rights for granted.

"Our voting records are not what they should be. In Australia, which has compulsory voting, one has 97 to 98 per cent turn outs. Here in a federal election, we might have 60 to 65 per cent, in a municipal election we might have 20 to 25 per cent, and often for school board it's less than that," he said.

"I would say we get the government we want and we deserve."