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"Words and Deeds Leadership Award" CIJA/UJA Gala

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Gordon Nixon
President & Chief Executive Officer
Royal Bank of Canada
"Words and Deeds Leadership Award"

March 29, 2006
Toronto, Ontario

Thank you Brent and Chuck, and good evening

I am honoured to be the first recipient of the “Words and Deeds” award and would like to thank the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy and the United Jewish Appeal for this special tribute.

This award is described as "recognizing leaders who make outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes and to tolerance, inclusion and civil discourse in Canadian society".

To quote Winston Churchill, “I am proud but also, I must admit, awe-struck to be honoured. I do hope you are right. I feel we are both running a considerable risk and that I do not deserve it. But I shall have no misgivings if you have none.”

This tribute certainly does not belong to me alone. For more than 25 years, I have been fortunate to work for an organization that values good deeds and good words, and has a proud history of leadership in both. I am often reminded that wonderful people, who are much more knowledgeable and involved in social and civic issues than I, go unheard and sometimes unheralded – they are the real award winners.

But as CEO of RBC, I am privileged to have a platform from which to speak and a position from which to contribute, and to waste such an opportunity to make a difference would be a disservice to my organization. So tonight, I would like to accept this award on behalf of RBC and, in particular, our employees who do so much for their communities.

I am also delighted to share this evening with my wife Janet. I was recently at a function where someone thanked their spouse, who they described as their “silent partner”. My first reaction was “how do you get one of those?”. But in truth, Janet’s words and deeds are a great influence on me, and our three children and we are truly blessed.

It is a particular honour to receive recognition from the Jewish community --- one that gives so much of themselves, not only for Canada and Israel, but to the broader community. When I chaired the United Way Campaign of Greater Toronto, one of my rallying cries to our cabinet was the per capita giving of the United Jewish Appeal. And many UJA supporters are also leaders in the United Way Campaign. This is a generous community that should take pride in its philanthropy – in fact, if you did a tour of our city’s culture, medical and educational infrastructure, you would not believe that only one percent of Canada’s population was Jewish.

It is also significant that the title of this award puts “words” first because actions don't always speak louder than words. Words can inspire and incite, persuade and promote. Great leaders are known for their words. Churchill, Lincoln, Mandela, Ben-Gurion, Gandhi, Luther-King, Kennedy all used words to inspire actions that brought down the forces of injustice and hate.

It is entirely fitting that CIJA and UJA use words to promote the shared principles that Canadians are so proud of - tolerance, diversity, inclusion, freedom of expression and the right to be protected from hatred. No group has done more to promote the values of tolerance and diversity, and to ensure that Canada progresses as a caring, civil society than the community that many of you represent.

The words and deeds of Jewish Canadians -- in public service, science, business, and the arts – have had a significant impact on our country and culture. Writers and poets like Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Mordecai Richler; film makers like Ivan Reitman; architects like Jack Diamond and Frank Gehry; jurists like Bora Laskin, Rosie Abella, Morris Fish and, now, Marshall Rothstein ; athletes like Bobbie Rosenfeld, business leaders like the Bronfmans, Izzy Asper, Peter Munk, Barry Sherman and tonight’s honourary chairs, Gerry Schwartz and Larry Tanenbaum; politicians like Herb Gray, David Croll, David and Stephen Lewis; and our mayors, Nathan Phillips, Phil Givens and Mel Lastman.

If I were to list all the remarkable words and deeds emanating from Canada's Jewish community, I would be here all evening. Yet, despite these accomplishments, it is disappointing that Canada, a country that prides itself on being a tolerant, inclusive, multicultural society, needs a CIJA or a UJA to advocate for our creative and generous Jewish community and for Israel.

They exist, in part, because anti-Semitism is still a reality in-spite of our laws that prohibit racism. Canadian Jews are still victims of hate crimes - with the rash of anti-Semitic incidents in Toronto and the burning of the Talmud Torah school in Montreal the most recent examples.

Friends in the Jewish community (much to my ignorance and disbelief) tell me of the subtle bias they still feel in Canada’s business community and even the fear they have for their children and grandchildren, of a broad resurgence in anti-Semitism.

The challenge for all Canadians is to speak out against both words and deeds of intolerance as people like Tony and Elizabeth Comper have done against anti-Semitism by creating F.A.S.T. (Fighting Anti-Semitism Together) or as organizations like CIJA and UJA do with respect to advocating for tolerance, inclusion and justice in all communities.

An issue that I have spoken on recently and I would like to briefly comment on tonight is the broad issue of diversity and workforce integration which is of great importance to our country if we are going to compete in today’s globally competitive world. As a segue, I would like to tell a story about my friend and colleague, Chuck Winograd.

When Chuck was appointed a vice-chairman of RBC a few years ago, he said to me that he wished his father was alive because he would never believe that a Jewish kid from Winnipeg could be a vice-chairman of Royal Bank. I told Chuck that he was both out of date and crazy.

And while I do not mean to compare the anti-Semitism that has faced the Jewish community throughout the course of history with the broad issue of diversity and integration, it does highlight to me different perspectives that each of us have and how important it is to try to put ourselves in the shoes of others.

If that was the perception of a leading Canadian business executive, just think how others with less history, less common a culture or less comfortable communication capabilities must feel as they attempt to maximize their potential in the workforce.

Whether new immigrants or visible minorities, our country has a huge social and economic opportunity if we can maximize the value of our diverse, multicultural society. But we have to recognize the issues and challenges we face if we are to capitalize on this opportunity.

A recent Canadian Values Poll asked “what makes Canada unique”. Some people said our landscape -- others our political and health care systems. But one answer stood, head and shoulders above everything else – diversity and multi-culturalism.

To put this in perspective, “hockey” ranked dead last.

To see “diversity” in the top spot of this poll makes a strong statement about the way Canadians define ourselves. And while we believe it, there is, in my view, a degree of naiveté in this response, particularly, from people like me (a white, anglo-saxon, unilingual, male) because many observe a relatively well-functioning multi-cultural society without recognizing the challenges of its different components.

Canadian politicians constantly brag about the success of our multicultural society. Yet one has to question if that makes for good politics or whether we are achieving the progress that we so confidently espouse.

Hate crimes are up, segregation and poverty by postal code is growing and immigrants are leaving Canada because they continue to see a glass ceiling or better opportunities elsewhere. Evidence suggests that today, immigrants are having a harder time adjusting than previous generations and the lack of inclusion of minorities and second generation immigrants is causing social and economic issues.

Our country has an opportunity to lead the world in creating an inclusive society and maximizing the value of our human capital through diversity and immigration. But our success will depend, not only on our ability to attract new immigrants, but providing the environment where new Canadians and all visible minorities can fully participate and maximize their potential.

There is a global competition for human capital and given all that our country has to offer, we can win and should be able to compete for the skills and resources we need. But we must recognize our challenges if we are going to capitalize on our diversity and maximize that potential.

I don’t believe many organizations in Canada are more inclusive than RBC, in fact, and I chair our Diversity Council which is the only committee at our company on which I sit other than our Executive Committee. Yet when I question the many talented visible minorities in our organization they confirm the unintended and hidden barriers that they feel. We are working hard to break down these barriers and have established a number of specific programs.

According to research of the Public Policy Forum, Canadian companies:

  • overlook immigrants in their human resource planning
  • don’t hire immigrants at the level they were trained; and
  • face challenges integrating immigrants into the work force.

With an aging population and competition from other mature countries, we cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

The challenge to corporate Canada, to all levels of government and to each of us is to stop talking about how inclusive and multi-cultural we are and start showing it.

I have spoken frequently on the importance of diversity and immigration because I do believe it is critical to Canada’s future growth, a great economic opportunity and an area of global competitive advantage. But that is if, and only if, we collectively change our policies and practices to attract the right skills and to live up to our values of integration, tolerance and inclusion. There is a distance between lip and cup that we must recognize and close.

Maximizing the potential of our diverse human capital is not only a social imperative but it is a great economic opportunity.

I would conclude by once again thanking CIJA and UJA for this wonderful honour. I had the thrill of visiting Israel almost two years ago and what an experience it was. In addition to great companionship, Gerry Schwartz, Rob Pritchard, Haim Divon, Moshe Ronen and others that we connected with over there, I knew this was a special trip the moment we left the ground.

We flew over on “Air Onex”, and rather than arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, we landed at the Tel Nof Air force base where we were greeted by the Base Commander and Brigadier General. We toured Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Golan Heights and visited the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

We traveled across Israel from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea – from the “Green Line” to the Mediterranean.

We dined with Prime Ministers, Intelligence leaders, Academics, Ambassadors and Palestinian leaders.

What a beautiful country and what a great experience.

Before going, I brushed up on my history and read books by Friedman, Derkovitz and even Chomsky. But those books don’t really deal with history they only refer to the last few 100 years which to the Middle East is considered current events.

Honestly, I learned more in my short visit to this remarkable and complex country than I had from books, newspapers or television. More than anything, I learned how little I knew of its history, geography, diversity or people. I marvelled at how a country could have accomplished so much in such as short time under such difficult circumstances. It was a special trip and I look forward to visiting again.

Ladies and gentlemen, I can’t thank you enough for being here. I appreciate that CIJA and UJA would consider me worthy and thank them for a memorable evening.

Thank you.