Canadian business executives are starting to speak out in support of addressing racism after demonstrations have erupted across North America, but experts say their words need to be accompanied by ongoing actions.
“What I’ve seen in the past is folks will make mention of ‘we stand together’ or ‘we’ll work together to make change,’ but rarely do they actually name anti-Black racism…and then it’s business as usual,” said Tomee Elizabeth Sojourner-Campbell, a Toronto-based consultant focusing on human rights compliance, diversity and inclusion.
“Statements, policies and protocols that have no implementation piece to them become nothing more than things that people refer to when things go wrong.”
Sojourner-Campbell’s comments come after violence has broken out in several U.S. cities following the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed Black man in Minneapolis who pleaded for air as a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for several minutes.
Around the same time Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Toronto woman, died after falling from the 24th-floor balcony while police were in her home, prompting questions about the role of officers in her death.
Canadians rallied in support of Floyd, Korchinski-Paquet and efforts to combat racism at weekend marches in Toronto and Montreal. On Monday, some business leaders started speaking out about the incidents and decades of racism around the world.
Tobi Lutke, founder of Ottawa-based, e-commerce giant Shopify Inc., took to Twitter to say he stands with the Black community, “who are our teachers now.”
“They hold the vision for a more just society and we all need to amplify. Racism of any kind is one of the bleakest aspects of humanity,” he tweeted.
He pledged to donate $500,000 to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund, $250,000 to the Black Health Alliance and $250,000 to Campaign Zero.
Vancouver-based Aritzia posted a message on its Twitter account Sunday, saying it didn’t have the words to express what it felt but wanted to respond to calls to action with a $100,000 donation to Black Lives Matter and the NAACP.
Elsewhere, Manulife Financial Corp. president and chief executive Roy Gori used LinkedIn to talk about being “deeply saddened and shaken” by the events, which he took to be a reminder that “we must all come together, to listen and to take action to end this injustice.”
Meanwhile, Victor Dodig, chief executive at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, said on LinkedIn that he shared the “deep sadness and outrage,” but hopes that peaceful action and protest will prevail “so we can channel our emotions and energy into exposing and challenging racism, prejudice and bigotry wherever it exists.”
“Making change happen will take action — from everyone,” he wrote. “We need to look for ways we can be more intentionally inclusive in our life and in your work. We need to listen carefully to those whose lives are different from our own.”
Karlyn Percil, who quit Canada’s banking sector after 22 years and has since become the chief executive at the KDPM Institute for Inclusive Behavior, took a look at the statements and said while she appreciates the words, there is room to do more.
“I would like to see CEOs actually talk about what are you going to be doing differently, because saying your actions publicly increases accountability around inclusion, racism and around the systemic barriers that are not always visible,” she said.
Companies, she said, should be creating or revamping diversity and inclusion strategies, turning to Black employee resource groups for advice and conducting racial bias training.
They shouldn’t feel afraid to seek guidance or to start having tough conversations, she said.
Silence is not the answer either.
“No one expects them to have all the answers but trying and messing up is better than not trying at all,” Percil said.
No company, she said, has yet to find an ideal approach, but Percil appreciated Shopify’s Lutke putting his money where his mouth is with the donation.
Sojourner-Campbell said she hasn’t had direct communication from large companies or multinationals about the mass demonstrations and how they can approach it, but noted “it is still early days” for companies to be figuring out a response.
While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how companies should respond to racism, she recommends brands use constant efforts to stamp out mistreatment of the Black community and be as specific in their statements and approaches as possible.
She used coffee chain Starbucks as an example. It closed 1,100 Canadian stores among nearly 8,000 locations in June 2018 for the day anti-bias training after two Black customers were arrested for trespassing when a Starbucks employee called the police.
“They focused on inclusion and they focused on how people feel so they did some of the emotional work, but it wasn’t specifically to address anti-Black racism. They used the diversity and inclusion lens,” she said.
“As long as businesses and organizations use that lens they’re going to miss the mark…because it’s not just an interpersonal issue. It’s a human rights issue.”