ESG and Positive Change for ALL in the 21st Century

Pre-recorded male: This is Conversations with the President presented by the Canadian Bar Association.

[Music 00:00:07 to 00:00:16]

Stephen Rotstein: Hi I’m Stephen Rotstein President of the Canadian Bar Association. My guest in this episode of Conversations with the President is Marc‑AndrĂ© Blanchard. Marc‑AndrĂ© is the Executive Vice President and Head of CDPQ Global. He was the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations from 2016 to 2020. Throughout his career Marc‑AndrĂ© has always been a champion for positive thoughtful change. At his firm McCarthy TĂ©trault it was gender equality, at the United Nations it was about removing silos and improving interdepartmental communication and coordination. In his current role at CDPQ he revolutionized the way we think about government and private industry cooperating and showing that what was once unthinkable is now doable.

He once referred to Canada in The Globe and Mail as a country that can get things done. On behalf of the CBA I am pleased to welcome a man who can get things done both on the local and a global scale. So let me first welcome you Marc‑AndrĂ© to my Conversations with the President Podcast.

Marc AndrĂ© Blanchard: Bonjour Stephen, what a pleasure to be here with you and to have this discussion and this conversation and also be engaged with the members of the CBA, an organization I’m very fond of.

Stephen Rotstein: Thank you. So you’ve had an amazing career. I quickly kind of gave a very quick summary of it but, you know, there’s a lot to compact. One of the things that I’m always fascinated with is how you went from being a law student to leading one of Canada’s largest law firms to of course being a diplomat at the U.N. and now your work in global sustainability. How did that all happen, was it planned and were there things you would have done differently now in hindsight?

Marc AndrĂ© Blanchard: You know it’s all about bringing people together whether it’s in a law firm or at the U.N. or in investment. You know it’s about building the trust amongst people. So before building trust you need to develop a relationship and then you build trust, and then you do things together, and then you connect the dots. You know when people ask me, you know, “You’ve had three different careers or four different careers if you look at litigation and then law firm management and then diplomacy and now investment.” And I say, “Well you know what, there’s a continuum throughout, you know. The job is – yes it deals with different things, it’s different being a litigator or being an investor or being a diplomat or being a law firm leader.

But it’s all about building a relationship and having the trust of people you work with and to develop things.” I used to say to lawyers at McCarthy’s yes we’re in the legal business of, you know, in the business of providing legal opinions but there’s a lot of good lawyers in Canada that can give good legal opinions. What is the difference between an ordinary lawyer and a great lawyer is actually someone who has a relationship with the client, knows very well what the client is trying to achieve and actually can apply the legal principle and make things happen. I used to say to my lawyers, to the lawyers that were working with us you’re in the legal opinion business but you’re also in the relationship business.

And it’s the same thing in diplomacy, try to, you know, develop a consensus without a relationship, there’s no trust. It’s impossible to do. I used to say to lawyers in my law firm try to actually overcome a mistake you’ve made without the relationship or the trust of your client. And it’s the same thing in investment. Now there’s a lot of capital in investment, the problem is not that there is a scarcity of capital. In many corners of the world and for many areas where we would like to have capital better aligned with sustainable development it’s actually a lack of bankable projects. Well how do you develop bankable projects? It’s actually by building relationship, by building platform, by building the trust amongst the members of that platform, and actually developing opportunities for everyone.

So I would say this has been the continuum throughout my career, you know, developing a relationship, developing trust, trying to make things happen; and I think it’s important whatever the career you’re choosing. I think those are the same in many, many areas.

Stephen Rotstein: I’ve been talking notes as you’re speaking. So I am quite interested and I know your listeners are quite interested in your experience working in the U.N. It was obviously – I don’t know if there’s ever a quiet time but it was a particularly active time, and so I guess my first question just is when you made the transition from obviously your role at McCarthy’s to the U.N. what was the – I know you said relationships and you talk about that but what was your biggest learning curve?

Marc AndrĂ© Blanchard: Well it’s going to sound very, in some ways very cheesy but I’ll tell you one thing. The first thing that strikes you once you’re sitting in that seat is – I always say that every Canadian should be sitting in that seat for one day in their life. They would realize actually how the world looks at Canada and the difference that Canada can make in the world. This is what I realized upon entering the U.N. after a few weeks, a few months of talking to my colleagues is there was a lot of expectation towards Canada. The other thing that struck me when I was President of the Peacebuilding Commission and before that I was a very active member of all sorts of peacebuilding initiatives throughout the U.N. what makes Canada so strong as a society, the difference between Canada and other countries that are not as successful.

I found that it actually lies a lot in the strength of our own institution, and the strength of the rule of law first, but also our institutions. Yes our national institutions and our provincial institutions but also the thousands of small local institutions that we have throughout the countries whether it’s about cooperatives for fishing, or it’s about Desjardin in QuĂ©bec or Savings and Loans in Saskatchewan or any kind of farmers’ organization or women and minorities organization. It’s about CDPQ and our institutional investors in the country. It’s about our banks. It’s about all sorts – all of our institutions, our media, our universities, this is a very, very big strength of Canada and this is something that we need.

You know for me when you look at the current world situation, at the current challenges that we have, as what we see coming in coming years, these things are so important and so fundamental for our own future and for our relevance in the world, and actually for the wellbeing of our children.

Stephen Rotstein: I totally agree with what you’re saying and I mean as a Canadian it makes me proud that our country is held in such esteem in the U.N. and obviously through our representatives such as yourself are obviously able to contribute to, you know, the global discourse which I guess leads me to two questions. I guess my first one is in your time there what would you say – what did you feel was your greatest accomplishment. What – I mean maybe you can’t just say one but if you could narrow it down to one, maybe two?

Marc AndrĂ© Blanchard: I arrived at the U.N. and the Secretary-General, you know, when you arrive as an ambassador and you go and present your credentials to the Secretary-General, and it’s a time to actually have a first discussion with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. At the time was the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. And I remember I said to Secretary‑General, “Listen I am –” as Prime Minister Trudeau often says when he’s on the world stage, you know, “We’re Canada and we’re here to help.” I said, “What can I do?” And he says, you know, “Ambassador Blanchard you have a different background that most ambassadors. You come with a long experience in the private sector.” He said, “We just actually agreed upon the Paris accord and also upon the 17 sustainable development goals, the SDGs.”

And he said, you know, “We need help to finance all of this.” And here at the U.N. the focus so far has been on overseas development assistance, public finance, finance that would come from donor countries. But he said, you know, “When you add all of the donor countries of the world this is 150 billion dollars a year. We need some people say between two and three trillion dollars of investment a year in infrastructure around the world. If you want to achieve the SDGs in their fullest in a holistic way you need between five and seven trillion dollars. So that’s between 5,000 and 7,000 billion dollars.” But he said, “Still at the U.N. the focus is on the 150 billion.”

He said, “If you can help us change the discussion at the U.N. and with government on the planet that actually the money will come from – yes maybe in some cases it will be government, donor governments, it will be multilateral development banks, it will be bilateral development financial institution; but most of the money will have to come from the private sector.” And he said here nobody talks about the private sector, and he said, “If you could help us change that?” So if you ask me the main accomplishment I did is when I left, that was in the summer of 2020, we just had started at the time the pandemic. For the first time during that summer we had meetings at the U.N. of the finance ministers to discuss that crisis.

And it was the first time that you would have finance ministers at the U.N. because the crisis, the pandemic was about lives and livelihood. So that was one thing but then it was also the year before, we did a full summit. I was a co-chair of a full summit on the role of the private sector on financing sustainable development, and that was done in the prime time of the opening session of the General Assembly in 2019. And that was marking the fact that actually it took me four years and all of us, not me personally but all of us. And what I did was – it’s the same thing as I said, it’s about relationship and building trust and actually building groups of people that can actually help you change the world if I may say so, you know.

I started a group with Jamaica, with the Ambassador from Jamaica, so it was one ambassador from the north, myself, and one ambassador from the south, the Ambassador of Jamaica and we started what was called a Group of Friends, and that had a snowball effect. We had 65 members and for four years we really worked at it and actually changed the way we talk about development at the U.N. And it’s now way more inclusive to the fact that actually during the pandemic it was really about – you know it brought all aspects of, you know, sources of financing. And now for climate it’s the same thing, everybody now recognizes that, you know, we need other sources of financing that public financing because if not we won’t get anywhere. And this is – I would say it’s the main contribution that I make.

Stephen Rotstein: There’s so much I want to talk to you about so I’m going to kind of segue to a different topic because I could use the whole time in our podcast to talk about what’s going on at the U.N. currently or previously when you sat in that chair. I know you mentioned that you kind of completed your term at the beginning of the pandemic. You know 2020 was, you know, two long years ago. And I know you recently spoke about how the pandemic has caused an overall acceleration of the processes and development in the global economy. I’m wondering – obviously you have a unique lens on this, if I can ask a narrow question which is kind of has the pandemic and this acceleration impacted the legal profession and where do you see that going?

Marc AndrĂ© Blanchard: Well I think there are two big things for the legal profession in this. I think that if you look at the acceleration for the digital shift that has been underway throughout the pandemic just in terms of proceedings the courts throughout the country. And you’re in a better place than I am to judge that but from the outside what I’ve seen we’ve done in two years what could have taken many more years otherwise. So that’s been a very positive development in a very difficult situation going to a more digital world in the legal profession. The other part where I think the jury is still out, and I’m concerned about it a little bit, is the issue of the hybrid model. Will it enhance diversity or be an obstacle to diversity.

You know the legal profession is continuing to have its difficulty for diversity, gender diversity and other sorts of diversities as well. And I am wondering if the hybrid model will be helpful or will slow the progress that should be made in the legal world. And the same thing could apply in the investment world as well where I am now. To me that’s a yellow light in my dashboard, to make sure that this hybrid model is inclusive rather than actually exclusive or a source of exclusion.

Stephen Rotstein: Is there a way – are there things that law firms or people in the legal profession could be doing to address some of the issues that you speak about?

Marc AndrĂ© Blanchard: Well I’m looking at what we do at CDPQ and to me it’s about making sure that when we’re in the office we use the time in the office to do what we cannot do digitally to make sure that we have very meaningful meetings and we have inclusive meetings where everybody’s around the table and is participating. Back to the first point that I made that it’s a lot about relationship and building trust and this is more difficulty in a digital world than it is in a face-to-face world. And – well maybe there’s a generation bias here on my part. So I invite all law firms to be very vigilant with this and to really make sure that it’s all about opportunity, you know, making sure that people have opportunities to grow and to be themselves and to develop their skills whether you’re an in-house or in a law firm or in government, I think the same thing applies.

For us in the investment world as an institutional investors there’s a lot of value in exchanging and comparing notes and sharing experiences and all of that. And so having a lot of conversations around the coffee machine are very important in many areas or many industries and the legal industry is one of them.

Stephen Rotstein: So along – thank you for that. Along those lines I didn’t think that anybody could have foreseen the pandemic and maybe the crisis in Ukraine could have been foreseen for some time but no I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the level they’ve gotten to. I know you don’t have a crystal ball but what, you know, what’s the next think that nobody expects, what is on the horizon that, you know, people should be thinking about now?

Marc AndrĂ© Blanchard: I think it’s – there are financial risks of course that will remain but the biggest risks in a way are not financial when you look at it even for investors like us. It‘s about – when you look at it – we need to be better at planning or at working on prevention. I’ll give you one example, microbiological residence is a topic that received very, very little attention, very little monies invested either from the public or private sector to find new antimicrobiotics that will be effective. It’s a very – it’s a significant risk when you look at it. There’s a lot – there’s way more resistance in many parts of the world to a lot of diseases or infections that we didn’t see before. That’s one example. I think we need to pay attention about migration issues.

We saw migration in Syria, at that time you had 5,000,000 people who left to go to the neighbouring countries and that had a very big impact in Europe, and some say it had a huge impact on actually getting the U.K. out of the European Union. And now you have the migration out of Ukraine also in neighbouring countries. I think the scale of migration that we’ve seen so far, it could be very small compared to the scale of migration we could see in the future because the demography of many parts of Africa and the impact of climate change all over the planet. You know I saw some islands in the Pacific, some small islands, small populations but actually were buying land on other islands to actually transfer, or other places in the world to transfer their people.

I saw some examples in Fiji where you had entire villages who for all of their lives, you know, for centuries have been fishing as the main activity and now were taken from the coast to inland to actually ensure that they would be able to survive. So we’re facing that, it’s real. And then you get into larger countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia where the impact of climate change could be significant. And I haven’t talked about the impact of climate change on our own continent and the impact it could have on major cities like on the east coast of the United States. We need to be better at looking at the prevention better. That to me is important.

And the other part where I’m very back to the strength of our own country and the province of QuĂ©bec and Canada and all of the provinces in Canada and the Territories, it’s actually the strength of our institutions. And I’m saying we need to keep working at those institutions, those institutions are key to our societies and we need to make sure that they continue to be very solid and thrive. And lawyers have a very big role play in this. The legal profession has a very big role to play in this. And I think we need to be very engaged. I invite the members of the CBA to be very engaged to making sure that our institutions are healthy as possible.

That doesn’t meant there’s [unintelligible 00:20:54] and yes they could be a little bit of [correlation 00:20:57] and all of that but at the end of the day it’s very important to keep our institution as inclusive as possible. We need to ensure dialogue is going on and that diversity and that we actually look really and be effective at delivering what is needed to fight some of the biggest issues we’re facing as a society. Some of them are, you know, like – you know talk about climate change, inequalities. And I’m not trying to make any politics here, regardless of where we stand on these issues we need to engage and be part of the discussion, the debate, be part of the solution and bring whatever we can to the table to actually go in the right direction.

Stephen Rotstein: I don’t think that’s a political statement I think it’s about being an engaged citizen and being involved in the issues of our time and climate change is clearly an issue of our time among the other things that you spoke about. I guess I had one final question which is kind of – it’s a bit different than what we’ve talked about previously but I would like your perspective or your advice for some of our listeners. One of the things that I’ve been talking a lot about during my presidency is the important of lawyers giving back to their communities in the area of volunteerism. You know you talked about your own role, you went from private, the private sector into obviously representing Canada, you know, in the public sector.

But I’m just wondering as far as volunteerism, you know, what your thoughts are as far as how lawyers can get involved in their communities; and it doesn’t have to be through elected office. I guess it’s not volunteerism but that’s public engagement or the U.N. but just, you know, what roles you see lawyers playing in the area of volunteerism that can obviously be helpful to the society in which they live in?

Marc AndrĂ© Blanchard: I actually – I’m a believer that whatever – you know we’re each – each of us are very different from each other and that’s a very good thing. And I often said to people, “Get engaged whether it’s the soccer team of your children or financial institutions like Desjardin at the community level or board of a non-profit or even the operations of a non‑profit that fits your aspirations and that touches a cord with you. I just think it’s important to be engaged and to be an active member of our society. And I think lawyers have more to bring to the table than many, many periods before. Look at the big issues we need to deal with, there’s a lot of governance issues all over, there’s a lot of issues regarding privacy, there’s a lot of issues regarding all sort of things where lawyers can bring a very interesting point of view.

I am a big fan of the legal academic background. When I was at the U.N. I had members of my team, of my diplomatic team, that were lawyers and some were obviously not lawyers, sand the lawyers some were acting in a legal capacity and some of them were just diplomats focussing on development issues or security issues or social issues or whatever was their specialties. I really thought that lawyers had a rigour to bring to the table [unintelligible 00:24:30] the way that it was structured. Maybe because I am a lawyer I appreciated it even more. But I thought it was a very, very solid academic background. And I think it’s the same thing for society. You know we will need to be doing things so differently than we have before.

And I think there are many opportunities for that. And we all need to create partnerships that will allow this to be possible. I’ll give you some example at CDPQ, you know, CDPQ is an institutional investor but we have very deep values in ESG that are enshrined in us; like we’ve been a leader in the fight against climate change for many years now. We came out the first institutional investor I think in North America with a climate policy in 2017. We were amongst the first to include ESG criteria’s or thinking in our investments. We’ve been doing that for close to 20 years now. We see now that as I said capital is not scarce what is more scarce are projects and projects that actually could give us a good equation of risk and returns.

And we found that actually to do what we need to be doing with the way that we look at the world, the need to fight for example for climate change. I was the other day with John Kerry, the special envoy of the President of the United States on climate. He was saying that we need to invest six times more than we do currently in the renewables to meet the objectives that we have for 2030. He said that we need to invest I think it’s between 25 and 30 times more in actually electric vehicle than we are doing currently. We need to do things differently because the speed at which we act is not fast enough. And not only do we have the climate change issue that we’re facing but we have other issues like the pandemic that we are – we’ve been facing for two years.

We have the security issue we are not facing with the invasion, you know, this war from Russia to Ukraine. And that’s now, what is waiting for us tomorrow don’t know, we just know that we live in a world where it will be more [multipolar 00:27:04]. We have more – less certainty and where we look at, you know, one of the consequences or the fact that we’re now talking more about nearshoring and friend-shoring and that supply change will be moving. These represent challenges but they all represent opportunities. And my point is actually we need to look at them with actually I think as an opportunity; but we also need to recognize that the old ways of doing things to say [unintelligible 00:27:41] will not work as well in the future.

And I believe that what we need is actually capital that is slightly better aligned with sustainable development, and for that to happen we need actually engagement in all sorts of ways in partnerships that were unthinkable just a few years ago that are no necessary. And that will take all of us, including lawyers, to actually think about how to make these things work, although maybe five years ago we never thought that they could work or that they could be done or achieved.

Stephen Rotstein: Well thank you for that. I was going to ask you some climate change questions; so we got there so that’s great. And I really wanted to thank you for the great information that you’ve discussed with me today and with our listeners on the Conversations with the President Podcast. And I just wanted to thank you for your support of the CBA but also for your role in representing Canada at the U.N. and other things over the years, so thank you very much, it was a pleasure meeting you on the podcast. And, you know, we talk about the hybrid model and we did this virtually. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to meet in person one of these days in the near future.

Marc André Blanchard: Thank you and the pleasure was mine. Thank you very much.

Pre-recoded male: This is Conversations with the President presented by the Canadian Bar Association.