Former Governor General of Canada David Johnston sees the face mask as, perhaps, the ultimate metaphor for trust in our society.

When we wear one as we go about our day, it’s a step we take to protect ourselves and each other from the virus — an act that recognizes “our mutual vulnerability,” he said during a recent virtual chat.

“We have been much more conscious of that as a society, the mutual vulnerability. And I think we’ll see the good institutions coming out of this with a much greater sense of a mutual vulnerability and the trust that’s based on that.”

His comments came during a virtual fireside chat with Scotiabank’s Chief Compliance Officer, Nicole Frew, on the importance of trust, which was the focus of his 2018 book Trust: 20 Ways to Build a Better Country, and a value that is top of mind as we collectively navigate through this pandemic.

During the hour-long discussion about the vital role trust plays in society and how to cultivate it, Johnston drew on his experience, including as the representative of the head of state in Canada from 2010 to 2017, as well as growing up in Sault Ste-Marie, Ont.

He defined trust as fairness, and an understanding of truth and transparency, and in his view it is a fundamental feature of Canada’s character.

“It’s also both the glue and the grease of our society,” Johnston explained. “The glue that holds things together and holds people together, and in transactional terms, it’s the grease that makes things simpler or move more smoothly.”

Fostering trust also involves “doing the right thing, as opposed to doing the thing right,” Johnston said, letting values rather than process dictate how you handle a situation.


Photo: Former Governor General of Canada David Johnston 

He recounted a situation he experienced as a student at Harvard University in the late 1950s and early 1960s as part of a social club at the Ivy League school. At the time, there were no Black members and when a young African-American man was suggested as a potential recruit for the club, a vote was held to determine whether Blacks would be admitted, Johnston said. The vote was negative, which “stunned” him, he said, and prompted him to resign from the club.

“For me, a test is always how do I explain this to my children, a particular action or not,” he said. “And very often, you’re making choices that are not the good or the bad, it’s the least, worst alternative. I think that's where your moral compass and your sense of values becomes quite important.”

Upholding principles and doing the right thing is a top priority for the Bank, said Frew, noting that this month Scotiabankers are being called to commit to its Code of Conduct. This guide and set standards of ethical behaviour for every employee as well as commitments to the communities in which Scotiabank operates, is renewed on an annual basis, further underscoring its importance.

“It's a promise, a promise that we make to our customers, to our diverse group of stakeholders, our regulators,” Frew said. “And importantly, back to the point of trust among the team, it’s the promise we make to each other.”

Johnston said it’s not only about the rules within the code, but the spirit of the rules that is important.

“It’s the culture that lies behind it. … That you do good in your communities, by the trustworthy relationship with not only your customers, but everyone else. You are a force for good, for good financial institutions, for good stewardship of the monies that are deposited with you, with the loans, the transactions you do. And the building of communities.”

For example, he recalled how in Sault Ste. Marie, it was the bankers in the community who were supporting the local United Way organization, helping food banks and serving on athletic councils to support local teams.

“[They were] playing a disproportionately large role, not simply running a good branch business but making the community better in every respect,” he said.

To cultivate trust and a code of ethical behaviour, it’s important that it is “authentic”, and that “everybody walks the walk.”

“Be sure it’s owned by everyone, and they conduct themselves both externally and internally in the same way,” Johnston said. “We use a metaphor in the Trust book. I’m always interested in how you run in the back stretch …  You’re pretty good when you’re in front of the stands, taking off or finishing, with all the cheering. But what do you do in the tough part when nobody is watching? That’s the test.”