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Canadian companies must make a firm commitment to fighting anti-Black systemic racism for the good of both the Black community and the economy at large. This message was sung in unison at the BlackNorth Initiative Summit July 20, as pledges from more than 200 CEOs across Canada poured in supporting the cause. 

The online broadcast, which was watched live by more than 3,000 people, was organized by the recently forged Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism in partnership with the Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce.

The council which was founded in June by Kingsdale Advisors founder Wes Hall, along with his co-chairs, CIBC CEO Victor Dodig, Cisco Canada CEO Rola Dagher and Fairfax Holdings CEO Prem Watsa – has been pushing Canada’s top corporations to take concrete action to support Black employees and end anti-Black systemic racism. The council was created in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. 

The BlackNorth Initiative pledge outlines the steps companies must take to fight anti-Black racism, including hiring at least 5% of their student workforce from the Black community, expanding unconscious-bias and anti-racism education, and ensuring that at least 3.5% of board and executive roles are held by Black leaders by 2025. By the start of the summit, more than 200 CEOs of major Canadian companies, representing over $1 trillion in market capitalization, had signed on to the pledge, including 30% of companies on the TSX 60. 

“Until now, Blacks have been left behind by the diversity movement in Canada. Today, that changes,” said Hall in a statement issued ahead of the summit. “These organizations will also be ambassadors for the creation of a new Black-friendly and Black-enabling Canada – progressively attracting those people and organizations whose values align with the BlackNorth Initiative,” added Hall. 

To date, Black Canadians have been underrepresented in corporate leadership positions. An analysis of S&P/TSX 60 companies by Corporate Knights found that less than 1% of board and executive positions in these companies were held by Black people. No member of this small percentage was Canadian, meaning the 3% of the Canadian population that identifies as Black is unseen in boardrooms of C-suites at Canada’s top corporations.

During the summit, Hall spoke of how difficult it’s been for Black Canadians to break the glass ceiling, sharing the story of Robert Sutherland, who was the first Black graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in 1855. Hall asked why, if the first Black lawyer existed in the 1800s, there are still no Black partners.

“Why are we still talking about the first Black [person] when we’ve been here for 400 years?”

High-achieving young Black Canadians shared stories of being the only Black person at their law school, being belittled by their peers and being ignored by employers in spite of graduating at the top of their class. 

Speakers at the summit said workplace racism isn’t just harmful to the Black community; it also impacts the bottom line at corporations that lack diverse leadership. A study conducted in 2017 by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that businesses with ethnically diverse teams were 33% more likely to outperform their non-diverse peers. 

“If high-performing companies and high-performing investors are all more diverse, our challenge is now to figure out how we can implement that in each of our companies, and more systematically as a society,” said Dame Vivian Hunt, managing partner at McKinsey in the United Kingdom and Ireland. 

As part of a panel discussion broadcast live from Toronto, CIBC’s Dodig said tackling systemic racism is “not a sociological project … it’s an economic project,” since doing so would raise Canada’s standard of living. 

“Candidly, I believe that this is going to drive economic growth. This is gonna be great for our country to make sure that … every Black Canadian can bring their entire self to their organization and contribute their entire self to everything that their organization is doing,” he said.

Speaker after speaker stressed that for this to happen, companies must go beyond lip service and cosmetic changes to their organization. 

“Let’s not come here and say … ‘Okay, we’ve done it. Okay, we’ve done this association, and we’ve hired this person in human resources, and we’re good to go,’” said Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors. “We have to be intentional. We have to be deliberate.” 

“For me,” said Dagher, “diversity is more than checking off a box.”

Being deliberate and intentional means examining your unconscious biases and learning about how the experiences of Black people may differ from yours, said Watsa. He acknowledged that, despite having immigrated from India, he himself had not experienced the degree of racism that his Black associates had experienced in Canada. He recommended that leaders speak with Black employees about racism, to better understand how it affects their lives. Watsa also stressed the importance of harsher punishments for racist behaviour, drawing a parallel to how the #MeToo movement culled sexists and sexual predators from the workplace. 

“You [display] racism, you’re fired,” he says. 

But racist behaviour can’t be addressed without an inclusive environment. Akim Aliu, former NHL player and co-head of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, an organization that aims to eliminate systemic barriers for racialized people in hockey, said he feared for his job when he criticized Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters for allegedly making racist comments. 

“One of the things that we fear, obviously in playing in the highest level of sports and I’m sure I can say in the corporate world, is losing your job,” he said.

Dagher said companies have to eliminate this fear and foster a culture of inclusivity, calling anti-Black racism a virus that corporate Canada needs to tackle. “Just as we’re fighting COVID, we’re fighting another virus. We need to make sure we have a stronger impact,” she says. 

 

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