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Brian J. Porter is President of Scotiabank.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

For anyone involved in global commerce, there are moments of ethical choice – either to compromise your standards to gain a business advantage, or walk away with your self-esteem, and the company's reputation, intact.

"Sometimes, you are defined by the business you don't do," said Brian Porter, president of the Bank of Nova Scotia, drawing on three decades in the trenches, including more than two years as head of Scotiabank's international operations.

It is that worldwide experience that inspired Mr. Porter to lead the bank's $1.5-million commitment to Dalhousie University's business school to fund programs in ethical leadership – including an annual conference and leadership award.

This is Mr. Porter's personal mission, and as a Dalhousie commerce alumnus, he has been the link between the 181-year-old bank and the Halifax-based university's Rowe School of Business. More than that, he and his wife, Megan, are making a personal donation of an undisclosed amount to the initiative.

"This is deeply rooted in my experiences working around the world," he said in an interview. "It is important to make sure that ethical leadership is strongly embedded in our business programs."

The Scotiabank Ethical Leadership Initiative, to be announced Monday, comes at a time when Canadian business has taken reputational hits from a flurry of cases, including criminal charges against former managers at international engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. and bribery and human-rights-abuse allegations involving resource companies.

Mr. Porter said companies do not, in the end, benefit from cutting ethical corners, no matter what the short-term economic benefit may be. Solid ethics are at the heart of good business, and 'if you operate at the highest standards ethically, the profits come," he said.

Ethical tone has to start at the top, he said, and then the challenge is spreading that culture through a far-flung organization such as Scotiabank, Canada's most international financial institution with 81,000 employees in 55 countries, including large swaths of Latin America.

The bank, he said, takes concrete actions to minimize the ethical risk. "We train our people appropriately and we make them aware of the pitfalls out there," Mr. Porter said.

He said the institution requires that its people operate according to Scotiabank standards of business, and not to local understandings of what is acceptable – and that stance is often welcomed by host countries, which want to import more models of ethical rigour.

The bank typically follows existing clients into a new market to offer its range of services. But "before we go in a country, we do our due diligence – not just within the country but with the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, the Council of the Americas in Washington, and we rely on advisers.

"Our people are well trained, they know our code of conduct and we train them in courses on anti-bribery, anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist-financing. It is deeply embedded in our culture."

Ethical leadership, he said, "is a strategic priority for the bank."

The idea is to transmit some of that attitude and experience to students at Dalhousie's Rowe School, which will build on existing programs to fund a national conference, a case competition, a student video and essay contest and a national award program for corporate, non-profit and government leaders.