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Canada’s biggest companies commit to fighting anti-black systemic racism

Canada’s biggest companies commit to fighting anti-black systemic racism

By Manini Sheker, Research Officer, Johnston Centre for Governance

The death of George Floyd – an unarmed 46-year-old Black man at the hands of a Minnesota police officer on May 25th – sparked an uprising against policy brutality and systemic racism that spread from city to city across the globe, exposing the quotidian and subtle ways in which inequality becomes reproduced in all sectors: from the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black and other racialized communities to the fact that boardrooms, the highest seats of challenge and authority in the corporate world, remain decidedly white. 

Canadian leaders in parts of the corporate world have heeded the call to combat anti-black systemic racism in various ways, from earmarking one-off donations for organizations supporting Black communities, to committing to anti-discrimination training for staff.

Even before the current show of solidarity, stalwart Canadian organizations like Mountain Equipment Co-op acknowledged that a lack of organizational diversity was "a problem that was ours to fix," signing an Outdoor Industry CEO Diversity Pledge in 2018. The organization has shared learnings from its work on diversity, equity and inclusion in recent weeks: in 2018, MEC appointed an internal diversity and equity steering committee to support its work in this area and increase the representation of people of color in its ambassador and other programs. While nearly 50% of its workforce and executive leadership identify as people of color, members of the Black community still remain under-represented. The organization plans to introduce mandatory unconscious bias training for its managers; measures to make its hiring and recruitment practices more transparent and equitable including blind screening techniques; and safe spaces for open conversations on racism and the outdoors.

While organizations like MEC have shown leadership in this area, they – like most others – have fallen short of creating measurable targets to increase the representation of black, indigenous and other people of color in board and senior management roles. Inspired by The 30% Club, a campaign by CEOs and Chairs to achieve at least 30% representation of women on all boards and C-suites globally, a new campaign, the BlackNorth Initiative spearheaded by the Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic racism, has challenged senior leaders of Canada’s biggest companies to show their commitment to diversity and racial justice by taking action on several fronts, including reserving at least 3.5% of executive and board roles for leaders from the Black community. According to analysis done by Corporate Knights, members from the Black community currently hold a meager 6 of 799 senior executive roles and less than 1% of board seats in S&P/TSX 60 companies.

This Monday, July 20, the BlackNorth Initiative hosted its inaugural virtual summit. Leaders of Canada’s largest public and private companies have been asked to make a genuine commitment to change by taking measures to enable "equity for all, including, but not limited to, Black, Asian and other racialized communities in Canada, indigenous peoples, members of the LGBTQ+ community, persons with disabilities, and women."

The initiative has already gained impressive momentum, with the CEOs of over 200 Canadian organizations across a spectrum of sectors and industries – including heavyweights such as the ManuLife Financial Corporation, Bank of Montreal, CCL Industries, EllisDon and Air Canada (collectively worth nearly 1 Trillion in Market Cap) – agreeing to take action in the following key areas:

Data collection: The rigorous collection of race-based data is a crucial first step all organizations must take in meeting their obligations under the pledge. The general lack of race-based employee, executive and board data has been a glaring problem for years, and remains one of the key obstacles to holding organizations accountable, measuring progress and formulating effective policy solutions.

Strategic planning: organizations must set up a diversity leadership council with broad representation to develop a strategic action plan around diversity that is overseen by the board.

Setting measurable targets: organizations must commit to ensuring that Black leaders occupy 3.5% of executive positions and board seats by 2025.

Conversation: organizations must agree to create a space safe for difficult and uncomfortable conversations around race and inequality.

Education:  organizations must commit to expanding anti-racism education and unconscious bias training to ensure that hiring managers are better aware of their blind spots when making decisions.

Knowledge Dissemination: companies must share best practices and lessons learned in implementing diversity strategies with other organizations engaged in this work.

Creating a pipeline for Black talent: organizations must agree to invest 3% of corporate donations to expand opportunities within Black communities and reserve at least 5% of internship opportunities for students from the Black community.

The commitment by Canada’s corporate leaders to combat anti-black racism through taking action in the key areas above is a crucial step forward. As Wes Hall – the founder of the BlackNorth Initiative – noted at the summit, from the boardroom to the classroom, it is no longer sufficient to not be racist, one must be ‘anti-racist’ and engage in the important work of transforming individuals, families, communities, and organizations from the inside out.

Want to learn more about the pledge or the measures you can take at the board and other levels to fight anti-black systemic racism? Check out some of our curated resources below.

Balji, D. (2020). Black Canadians Use Gender Playbook in Fight for Equality. Bloomberg.

Article on how the BlackNorth Initiative is learning from the fight for gender equality in the corporate boardroom.

CBC (2020). What can be done to fight anti-black systemic racism in corporations?

A panel of experts including BlackNorth Initiative founder Wes Hall weigh in on the measures companies can take to fight anti-black systemic racism.

NACD (2020). How boards can help address systemic racism in America

NACD blog outlines four immediate steps boards can take to support racial justice

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