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How Business Leaders Can Tackle Racism

by Anthony Morgan

Lawyer and community activist, Anthony Morgan, on making Black lives matter in corporate Canada.

GLOBAL RESURGENCE of the Black Lives Matter Movement was sparked on May 25, 2020 after the world witnessed the painfully horrific killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

The viral video of Mr. Floyd being slowly suffocated by Chauvin’s knee on his neck while Floyd cried out for help was a raw display of anti-Black police violence that shook the world to its core. With this video, the terror of police brutality that Black people have been lamenting, protesting and resisting for decades finally penetrated public consciousness and conversation in a way that galvanized action from hundreds of thousands of citizens, government leaders, socialites and business leaders alike.

The groundswell of public dialogue, action and protests in support of Black lives led, for the first time in living memory, many major U.S. corporations and business leaders to make public statements and corporate commitments to taking specific actions in the spirit of boldly naming and resolutely addressing anti-Black racism within their personal lives, society and their respective organizations, corporations and industries.

The strong waves and reverberations of the Black Lives Matter Movement of 2020 were also felt in Canada, as we had our own tragic policing incident that shook many members of the Canadian public.

On May 27, 2020, a viral video was circulated online showing the tragic aftermath of the police-involved death of a 29-year-old Black and Indigenous woman in Toronto named Regis Korchinski-Paquet. The death of Ms. Korchinski-Paquet resulted from her falling several stories from her high-rise apartment after several police officers barged in, ostensibly to conduct a wellness check requested by a family member. Ms. Korchinski-Paquet’s suspicious death coupled with the video of Mr. Floyd’s murder led tens of thousands of Canadians across the country to take to the streets to participate in demonstrations. Corporate Canada soon followed in raising its voice in support of the #BLM Movement.

All of this took place within the context of the punishing public health crisis of the global pandemic. COVID-19 has been found to not be a colour-blind pandemic, but a health scourge that has had disproportionately negative impacts on Black communities. Black residents make up 7.5 per cent of Toronto’s population but 21 per cent of the city’s COVID-19 infections, while in the nation’s capital, Ottawa, 66 per cent of residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 are either Black or from other non-white backgrounds.

It has become increasingly clear that COVID-19 has only exacerbated the socio-economic marginalization of Black people in Canada who were already experiencing significantly high rates of social exclusion and disadvantage.For instance, according to the 2016 census, unemployment rates of Black Canadians are consistently higher than in the overall population at 12.5 versus 7.7 per cent for other racialized groups and 7.3 per cent for white Canadians. This is true even when comparing populations with higher levels of education. Consider that among those with a post-secondary education in 2016, the unemployment rate is reported for Black Canadians to be 9.2 per cent compared to 5.3 per cent for the rest of the population. Additionally, Black Canadians are almost twice as likely as non-racialized Canadians to be of low-income status. Statistics Canada also reports that 23 per cent of Black Canadians in the last census were considered ‘low income’ while the rate for other racialized Canadians was 20 per cent and that for white Canadians was 12 per cent.

Business leaders across Canada have committed to addressing anti-Black racism in their practices, including hiring and recruitment.

These inequalities have also been found to get worse with time, not better, as there is a multigenerational wage gap for Black Canadians. Alarmingly, StatsCan data shows that, on average, first-generation Black Canadians make an income of about $37,000, compared to an average income of $50,000 for new immigrants who are white. The average income of third-generation Black Canadians as recorded in the 2016 census was $32,000, compared with $48,000 for white Canadians.

In the City of Toronto specifically, which features the highest population of Black Canadians, these disparities are also prevalent in policing. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s most recent reports, between 2013 and 2017, Black people were dramatically over-represented among those seriously injured or killed by police, in instances of use of force (28.8%), shootings (36%), deadly encounters (61.5%) and deaths caused by police shootings (70%). Out of the twin forces of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter Movement — both of which put a spotlight on multivariate disadvantages faced by Black communities—corporate Canada emerged with its own responses to meet the moment and support the movement for Black lives in Canada.

One of the most dominant corporate responses to 2020’s racial justice reckoning came in the form of some 300 and counting CEOs signing a pledge to end anti-Black systemic racism within their companies, answering a call to action made by the newly emergent BlackNorth Initiative (BNI).

Under the banner of the BNI’s newly created Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism, business leaders across Canada have committed to address anti-Black racism in their practices including in hiring, recruitment, retention, especially in the upper echelons of corporate Canada’s executive ranks. This was most emphatically expressed through an impressively sleek and sophisticated virtual summit that the BlackNorth Initiative held to announce its mission, vision and values. At the time, the Initiative reported that the Canadian companies that had thus far committed to the pledge boasted more than $1-trillion in total market capitalization, coming from a wide array of industries from banking to finance, retail, tech and education. Many of these companies, it was shared at the summit, are listed on the S&P/TSX 60 Index.

The BlackNorth Initiative has garnered considerable attention and support across corporate Canada as the premier project for Canadian corporations to affiliate with to demonstrate their support for the spirit, movement and message of Black Lives Matter. That said, it’s not the only one. Another high-profile corporate initiative that emerged in support of the justice and inclusion claims of the Black Lives Matter Movement is the Black Opportunity Fund (BOF). The BOF is a collaborative engagement between businesses, philanthropists, foundations, as well as organizations, leaders and members of Canada’s diverse Black communities committed to working collectively to address systemic anti-Black racism in Canada. Founded by a coalition of over 50 Black business and industry leaders, the BOF is a philanthropic enterprise that aims to leverage the expertise of many of corporate Canada’s Black pathbreakers in the interest of advancing the well-being of Black businesses, organizations and communities.

With a focus on Black community economic empowerment, the BOF aims to endow and sustain the world’s largest fund for stimulating sustainable and generational collective economic growth for Black Canadians. Its approach includes issuing grants to scale up Black non-profit organizations and making capacity-building investments in Black businesses. As stated on its website, the BOF “will serve the community and its partners by providing financial capital as well as best-in-class resources and guidance.”

While similarly committed to advancing corporate initiatives focused on enhancing equity, diversity and inclusion with respect to Black Canadians, the BOF and the BlackNorth Initiative are distinguishable by the scope of their respective work. Both nation-wide projects aspire to marshal the brilliance, power and capital of corporate Canada, but while the BNI is much more inwardly focused on addressing corporate Canada’s dearth of Black professionals and business leaders, the BOF is more outwardly focused. In particular, the BOF leans more towards external expressions of corporate citizenship by also focusing on improving equity and well-being outcomes for Black communities by focusing on the areas of education, healthcare, youth, women, social justice, immigration, technology, entrepreneurship, and politics. Another distinguishing factor is that the BOF doesn’t only aim to see corporate Canada’s ranks diversified, but also aims to help facilitate and foster opportunities to support Black Canadians to increase their representation in the highest levels of the public service, as well as within the ranks of politics and government across Canada.

In September 2020, the federal government announced a $221 million partnership with Canada’s leading financial institutions in support of Black economic development.

Perhaps inspired and encouraged by corporate Canada’s leadership, the Government of Canada has also responded to the racial-justice reckoning with unprecedented commitments to supporting justice outcomes for Black communities, organizations and businesses in Canada. In September 2020, the federal government announced a $221 million partnership with Canada’s leading financial institutions in support of Black economic development.

The partnership, called the Black Entrepreneurship Program (BEP), includes a commitment of approximately $93 million from the federal government. The BEP also features tens of millions of dollars in support of the development and implementation of a new National Ecosystem Fund to help Canada’s Black-led business organizations achieve greater access to funding and capital, mentorship, financial planning services, and business training. Also included in the BEP is a new Black Entrepreneurship Loan Fund for small and mid-sized Black businesses, and a commitment from leading Canadian financial institutions, including RBC, BMO Financial Group, Scotiabank, CIBCNational Bank, TD, Vancity, and Alterna Savings, to offer up to $128 million in additional lending support for Black business leaders and professionals. Also included in this unprecedented commitment was the announcement of the creation of a $6.5 million allotment of funds to create and sustain a new Black Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, aimed at monitoring and evaluating data on the state of Black entrepreneurship in Canada, and identify Black entrepreneurs’ barriers to success as well as opportunities for growth. The Hub will be run by Black-led community and business organizations, in partnership with educational institutions.

Whether all these initiatives and their accompanying solidarity statements in support of Black lives will translate into true, generational change for Black communities in Canada remains to be seen. The disparate outcomes faced by Black communities in the areas of employment, entrepreneurship, education, housing, health care and the policing and justice system are several generations in the making. It wouldn’t be fair to expect dramatic improvements to Black life without undertaking at least a full generation of sustained and robust supporters and investments in the social and economic well-being of Black Canadians. But one thing is undeniable based on the developments of 2020: There is a strong and essential role that corporate Canada can and has started to play in making Black Lives Matter in Canada.

This is a welcome shift that extends and deepens notions of corporate social responsibility. The real measure of success, however, will be whether corporate Canada stays the course long enough to realize meaningful change. Long-term is what will ultimately lead to a reshaping of our world and the reality of what it means to live, work, and lead as a Black person in Canada.  

Anthony Morgan is racial justice lawyer and Manager of the City of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit, which is responsible for implementing the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism. His TEDx Toronto talk, “How Tupac Inspires Better Policing”, can be viewed online.

This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

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