William Downe, CEO of BMO: “Populism is not the problem: How can business help address the underlying causes of discontent?”

Date: June 8, 2017

Publication Type: Speeches

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Excerpted remarks by William Downe, Chief Executive Officer of BMO, to the Canadian Club of Toronto, June 8, 2017. 


“One of the advantages of a long career—especially in the banking industry – is it allows you to see firsthand the many forms uncertainty can take: the factors that drive it, the barriers it creates, and most importantly, what’s required to push through to the other side. I also have the good fortune of working for a bank that’s in its 200th year of business – and which has thrived by always looking forward to be at the centre of both social and economic change.


“Neither of those perspectives make the issues we face today any less urgent. But they may help to frame what we should be asking as we stand at another critical crossroads – the intersection of globalization and digitization of knowledge.


“Over the past two decades, globalization has unquestionably brought improvements in areas such as health and education, while lifting more than a billion people out of poverty. And the rise of the digital economy, which continues to accelerate, has not only revolutionized the world we know, but opened up whole new areas of opportunity. Still, for all the benefits we can point to, it’s reasonable to question how fairly those benefits are being shared.


“In this context, it seems to me the obvious questions are: What actions do we take, and how fast can we take them? Who gets to decide what needs to be done?


“So what I’d like to offer today is a way of framing our collective challenge – which for me comes down to two main themes:

First: when we examine the underlying issues that give rise to anxiety, what can we say is true? What is uncertain? And what is mere catastrophizing in populist narratives generated by people who are only looking at problems? What are the facts, and how can effective policymakers apply those facts and come up with solutions?

Second: who is responsible for sorting this out? As leaders in business, in the professions, in the institutions that define communities across Canada – what should we be doing to address the very real causes of discontent?


“Clearly we have to listen differently – to understand why people are feeling uneasy, or left behind, or fed up. And then we need to speak out – because we see nations where political leaders don’t necessarily speak for the people they lead. We have to talk about the fears reflected in populism, and its root causes, and any disconnects between what policymakers commit to do and what they’re actually able to achieve.


“Most critically, we need to get off the sidelines and say what we believe about building economic resilience, competitiveness and long-term prosperity – and then act upon it.


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