Speaking Notes for Evan Siddall, President and Chief Executive Officer Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation

The Hennick Centre for Business and Law – Guest Lecture Series
Osgoode Hall Law School
Toronto, Ontario

Check against delivery


I’ve been thinking a lot about poppies lately.

Maybe that’s no surprise given the time of year. But I’ve been thinking about how the poppy is more hardy, noble and under-appreciated than many of us realize. It has a lot to say.

The poppy blooms in a rainbow of colours beyond crimson red, comprises about 100 species in the papaver family and grows in a range of climates, from the thin air of the snowy Himalayas to the crushing humidity of the Nile valley.

Poppies and humans share a long history — dating from the dawn of civilization. Poppies were first used as ornamental plants in ancient Mesopotamia and their medicinal qualities are noted in ancient Greek references to euthanasia. In the 16th century, the Swiss-German physician, Paracelsus, popularized the opium tincture “laudanum,” which was widely prescribed for over 300 years until morphine was isolated.

Paracelsus also gave us a basic principle of toxicology in the adage “Sola dosis facit venenum.” That is a paraphrase meaning: "All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” Even flowers. And even bureaucrats. But more on that later.

So, the dose makes the poison. Opium from poppies provides relief — but too much comfort can be deadly. The humble poppy thus rests on the threshold of medicine and poison, beauty and destruction, life and death, order and chaos.

Each year at this time, poppies bloom on our lapels in remembrance of the margin between life and death. The flower’s determination — its urgent rebirth on the battlefields of death — was first observed during the Napoleonic wars. One hundred years later, soldiers in the First World War gazed upon a bloody sea of poppies emerging from the soil of northern France, tilled by combat and destruction. Death itself prepared the lime-rich soil to feed seeds borne on the wind and bring them to life.

Today we wear poppies to pay respect to heroes who served our country. Last Sunday, as we stood silently together in memorial, poppies reminded us to honour the dead, as we should.

Yet the dead would have us consider the living.

The Ethic of Service

Indeed, John MacRae’s famous poppy-inspired poem, “In Flanders Fields,” concludes with the following verse:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

We are exhorted to serve. The fallen have passed a torch to us. They shall not sleep unless we shoulder the responsibility to make a better Canada.

Service to country is therefore both a privilege and a necessity. And, implicitly, it is something we may actually owe those who died for us. That’s why we wear poppies.

In light of our debt to the fallen, I want to speak today of the duty of public service — its imperative even. I’ll share a bit about my experience as an Osgoode Hall alumnus whose career has taken me from investment banking to the public service.

More than anything I hope you know that if you choose to devote some of your time to Canada, you will benefit from it — I promise. I’ll talk about some of these benefits – and I will also address the costs we impose. We make it harder than it should be to serve – and it’s keeping good people away. Before I get into that though, I want to explore the ethic of public service.

The Call to Serve

The very idea of noblesse oblige signifies a sort of moral economy. Honoré de Balzac used the term to refer to the public responsibilities of the rich, famous or powerful to give back. With privilege comes an obligation to help the less fortunate. The duty to serve is a cornerstone of humanity and society. As law students, you have had some things go right for you in life. Offer some of that good fortune and your intellect to the society that nurtured you.

Eight years ago, I discovered my own contribution after being challenged by my friend and former colleague, Mark Carney. Then Governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark requested my help with the post-financial crisis challenge of how to ensure that no bank was too big to fail in order to avoid another bail-out of bad behaviour. We were able to persuade the very largest global banks to go along with a form of capital called “bail-in” debt. 1 Because of that, we feel like the world is a more stable place.

For me, Mark’s timing was opportune. I had just visited the battlefields and cemeteries of northern France and southern Belgium. This is where the Battle of Vimy Ridge took place, when most historians agree that Canada came of age as a nation. Former Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier headed that trip and being there with him, I felt the tragedy of war through the eyes of a soldier. I also felt the burden of war’s responsibility through the eyes of a general. I left France feeling like I owed something and that John MacRae was speaking to me personally, calling me to serve.

After a few years at the Bank of Canada, I applied to be CEO of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. I was drawn by the opportunity to continue making a difference by strengthening Canada’s financial system and helping our most vulnerable citizens to have a place to call home.

Today I can truly say that the highlight of my career has been the privilege of serving Canada. I am especially proud of how my team of 2,000 is transforming CMHC into an institution Canadians can admire. We are unified in seeking housing affordability for people in Canada. Relatedly, we are leading Canada’s first-ever National Housing Strategy – a plan that will transform the future of housing in Canada and help to build a more inclusive country. But that’s another speech.

In doing so, CMHC is at the vanguard of a kind of anti-bureaucracy: eliminating hierarchy, face time and vestiges of power like office size. And rather than avoiding risk like most bureaucracies, we have instituted a framework of how to embrace risk through innovation and in being ready to support Canada’s financial system in times of crisis.

While General Hillier lit a spark in me, I was too old for military service. Happily, there are innumerable ways to serve. For example, my partner spent a year in the Solomon Islands working for the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA, now part of Global Affairs Canada. Formed by Maurice Strong in 1968, CIDA was Canada’s answer to U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps.

A few years earlier, JFK defined a national call to service for young adults beyond military service. He had challenged Americans to “ask what we could do for our country.” President Kennedy’s initiative was founded in de Balzac’s ethic of noblesse oblige. In paraphrasing Luke 12:48 he insisted that, "For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

“The Dose Makes the Poison”

Some people devote their entire careers to public service. In Canada, our public servants form a largely professional class. By contrast, the United States has a rich history of “in and outers,” leaders who bounce between the private and public sector — and think tanks as well. Changes in the US presidency mean tidal shifts of thousands of senior-level administrators across government: out with the old, in with the new. The U.S. government borrows heavily from the private sector and benefits from their appointees’ practical experience. However, it can be highly politicized and partisan as a result.

Canada’s professional civil service results in greater continuity. It is more stable, with an arguably more coherent public policy and avoids needing to re-educate leadership on how government works. In fact, Canada’s public service was recently ranked by Oxford University and the Institute for Government, a UK think tank, as among the world’s most effective.

Still, it has its faults. Its closed continuity can be stifling. Our bureaucracy has a mind of its own. It is Byzantine in how it operates, taking years for outsiders to understand. In many ways it is organically calcified. Too often we hear a process justified “because we’ve always done it that way” – seven very expensive, inherently thoughtless words.

Canada is therefore well-served by adding non-bureaucrats to the mix. Not only is this diversity of experience invaluable, it offers a catalyst for change, fresh ideas and innovation. Think of the contributions of people like Mark Carney, Louise Arbour and David Johnston. Notably, our ambassadors to the U.S. and France, David MacNaughton and Isabelle Hudon, assumed their roles directly from the private sector and are important interlocutors with two of our closest allies.

In fact, I prefer a mostly professional public service. Our senior deputy ministers are truly terrific, brilliant leaders, as effective as most CEOs. As effective as they are, however, our public servants need a better exchange of ideas and understanding with private sector. We should be more purposeful about secondments between the public and private worlds, and with think tanks. We have too stark a division between government and industry and academia and policy makers. We need more, just not too much.

As Paracelsus said, the dose makes the poison.

The Costs of Service

Aside from the duty of service, the benefits are many. Perhaps the greatest of them is the privilege of viewing Canada through a federal lens. In addition to the comprehensive national perspective it affords, you also appreciate more deeply our regional identities. The tapestry that is Canada becomes more visible.

It is valuable to understand that government works differently, too, especially given its importance in every sector of our country. Government makes decisions according to a unique algorithm. Decisions are hard to reverse and therefore hard to come by. And they are often not made until there is a happy confluence between good public policy and political economy.

And an under-appreciated truth is that government exists to serve politicians. Therefore, in Canada our public service has its own version of deferential, ambiguous, indirect language — all tiringly expressed in passive voice. One therefore says “it is recommended that” rather than “I recommend.” All the better to protect politicians from the burden of direct advice. However, understanding why this tendency exists, and the sometimes glacial pace of decision making, offers valuable perspective into how government works. Learning this insight is a valuable skill, no matter where your career takes you.

Yet if serving is worthwhile and an honour, why aren’t more of us doing it? Why do so many avoid it? Why, as my father said, are those smart enough to enter public life too smart to enter public life?

Imagine you get a phone call. You’re asked if you’d accept a challenging post of great value to your country or province. Your job will finally count for something more than a paycheque. As a patriot, you are tempted. You might even see the chance to make a historic contribution. You’re intrigued, and possibly even inspired. Maybe, like me, you seek redemption: it’s a chance to trade in your investment banker’s dark cloak to join the light side of the force.

And then you read the fine print: you’ll take a pay cut, your hourly wage will plummet, and you will have to sacrifice time with your family by moving to Ottawa or your provincial capital. You’ll have to disclose practically everything about your life and transfer your assets to a blind trust. You will be prevented from working in the industry you know for as long as a year after you’re finished, without pay.

Oh, and then a friendly voice reminds you that you will live under a microscope, your every letter, memo and email subject to an Access to Information request. You soon learn the oppressive reality that every action you take, every meal you purchase, every business trip you take must pass the “Globe and Mail Test.” Would you be content seeing a story about your every decision, above the fold, on the front page of a national daily?

We must of course hold public leaders to a high standard. Integrity is these leaders’ only currency. Our ability to influence decisions must never be compromised by conflict. Moreover, as guardians of taxpayer moneys, we must spend public resources more frugally than our own funds. This aside, our support for public figures is far too capricious.

Tall Poppies

I know what you’re thinking… You are wondering: What does all of this have to do with poppies, anyway?

These jobs are hard on families and thankless. Worse still, we have an appetite for sullying the good names of generous people. Think of the many public figures who have been publicly attacked for political gain or the media’s hunger for scandal. The ubiquitous, all-purposed poppy helps us again with a metaphor.

“Tall poppy syndrome” refers to the decapitation of flowers that grow taller, that dare to stretch higher. Originating with in Ancient Greece with Aristotle, the idea regained notoriety when an Australian politician used the phrase to summarize his egalitarian policies. In the 1980s, it was the title of a best-selling book by Susan Mitchell that profiled nine successful Australian women. Tall poppy syndrome has come to be understood as our tendency to resent, tear down, attack, string up or criticize those who are successful. 

That treatment comes from many angles. We bureaucrats are pariahs at cocktail parties everywhere. We suffer withering commentary about government from people who won’t find an hour every four-or-so years to vote. And as interlopers from the private sector in government, we also confront tissue rejection from careerist mid-level technocrats who resent our positions. And don’t get me started about the garbage one is subjected to on Twitter.

In Canada, like Australia, we like to strike down the tall poppies. We are making it way too hard in Canada for people to serve our country, and that is a shame.

In Memoriam

We remember fallen soldiers on Remembrance Day since they deserve our reverence in perpetuity. Their ultimate sacrifice has no comparison.

We owe those who serve our country in other ways more gratitude, too. They have carried the torch thrown by fallen soldiers. Many of these people make daily sacrifices for the betterment of our society. We should cut them a little slack.

As you contemplate your future, I offer you two challenges. First, help make it easier to serve. Defend our public service. Expect the best, but don’t demand perfection. We should tolerate the odd well-intentioned stumble. Realize that sometimes things need to get messy before they get better.

In the quest to do good, people have to take risks and break a little glass. Rather than run away from the mess, we – you – should see this as proof that we are needed. You know you’re close to the target when you start taking flak. These are the opportunities to make a difference.

Second, serve. Rather than complaining about bureaucrats, become one for a while. We need more people who are willing to bring their talent and new ideas to government, and to take risks to advance an agenda. Whatever the journey that got you here, you are fortunate to be studying at Osgoode. Carry the torch for a while and then pass it on. Make it your aim to learn how government works, find your opportunity to help and offer Canada your noblesse oblige.

I think you owe it to the memory of the heroes who fought for us. You owe it to those who have served since. You owe it to Canada. And you owe it to yourself.

Like our soldiers, live heroically.

Own your advice and your decisions.

Act with integrity, bravery and ambition.

You, your decisions and our country will all be better for it.

1 The Financial Stability Board’s perspective on bail-ins is available here: http://www.fsb.org/2016/08/guiding-principles-on-the-temporary-funding-needed-to-support-the-orderly-resolution-of-a-global-systemically-important-bank-g-sib/. Canada’s own Bail-in Regulations, the Bank Act and the CDIC Act came into force on September 23, 2018,

Date Published: November 15, 2018