Born and raised in Port Colborne, Ontario, Wilson was educated at Port Colborne High School and obtained an undergraduate degree from McMaster University before entering the foreign service. After postings in Vienna and Japan, he became a teaching assistant at Cornell University where he earned an M.A. in Economics.
Entering the corporate world, Wilson held the position of corporate economist and director of economic research with John Labatt Ltd. from 1969 to 1971 before becoming co-ordinator-industrial research and development policy for the Federal Government.
Wilson left the government again in 1974 to take up a vice-presidency and directorship with MacMillan Bloedel, but returned to the civil service to become the executive director (1977–78) and then deputy minister (1978–1981) of industry and tourism for the Government of Ontario.
Returning once more to the corporate world in 1981, Wilson became the president and CEO of Redpath Industries Ltd., later becoming chairman in 1988. In 1989, he was appointed vice-chairman of the Bank of Nova Scotia. Wilson became president and COO of BCE Inc., Canada's largest telecommunications company, in 1990, was appointed president and CEO in 1992, and added the responsibilities of chairman in 1993. Wilson stepped down from all but his position as chairman in 1998, but continued to serve as chairman of the board until 2000. Between 2000 and 2005 he served as chairman for Nortel.
Wilson holds numerous honorary degrees, and was appointed officer of the Order of Canada in 1997. Wilson continues to be involved with companies such as Nortel Networks, CAE Inc., and Daimler Chrysler Inc., and also serves as chancellor of his alma mater, McMaster University.