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How corporate Canada is addressing anti-Black racism 8 months after protests

Bank buildings are photographed in Toronto's financial district on June 27, 2018. CEOs representing more than 450 Canadian organizations, including three of Canada's big banks, have signed up to support the BlackNorth Initiative against systemic racism. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin.

Eight months after corporate Canada committed itself to address systemic racism within its workplaces and power structures, those who are committed to holding businesses accountable say they’re optimistic that change is happening.

Over 450 companies have signed the BlackNorth Initiative’s “pledge,” a list of promises for CEOs to adopt that include hiring more Black people in leadership positions and promoting education on combating microaggressions in the office.

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#BlackNorth initiative launched to end systemic racism on Toronto’s Bay Street, corporate Canada – Jul 14, 2020

While BlackNorth’s founder and executive chairman Wes Hall would have liked to have seen that number hit 1,000 by the end of last year, he says he’s no longer focused on how many companies sign up.

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“I’m looking at the quality of (the) people that are participating in this and their commitment to this,” he told Global News. “We have this many committed people, and that’s all we need to make the systemic changes that we’re looking for.”

The list of signatories includes some of Canada’s largest and most prominent companies: Hudson’s Bay, Rogers Communications, Telus, Molson Coors, Roots, Bombardier, Air Canada and WestJet. Domestic arms of multinational corporations like McDonald’s and Pepsi have also signed the pledge. So has Corus Entertainment, the parent company of Global News.

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Some of those companies have announced their own goals in addition to those included in the pledge. In November, Enbridge announced a target for 20 per cent of its board members and 28 per cent of its employees to be Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC) by 2025. Scotiabank said it wants at least 30 per cent of its senior leadership roles to be filled by BIPOC candidates within the same time frame.

Hall says actions made by just a few of these companies will cause a ripple effect throughout the rest of corporate Canada, inspiring others to take the same steps despite not signing a public document.

“If we work on this problem collectively, it’s going to be solved faster,” he said.

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Jason Murray, founder and president of BIPOC Executive Search, agrees. Since its beginning in July, the firm has helped dozens of companies and government agencies across the country not only acquire diverse talent, but also implement change in their training and human resources practices.

“I think (a five-year goal) is a good start and will give everyone an opportunity to learn the work, do the work, see the results and then have some renewed commitment or even a new commitment (to do more),” he said.

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The roadblocks Black Canadians face at work remain daunting, even under the harsher spotlight cast by the renewed Black Lives Matter movement last summer.

According to a December report by CivicAction, Black university graduates earn 80 cents to every dollar earned by white graduates with the same credentials.

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The study also found nearly 60 per cent of Black Canadians experience microaggressions on the job. Many of those workers said they feel the need to “code switch” — adjusting their style of speech, appearance or behaviour in order to fit in with a primarily non-Black workplace.

Murray says while some of the companies who made public statements last summer were doing so under pressure amid the protest movement’s anger and frustration, he’s seen that give way to an eagerness to learn and do better. Yet he admits there have been bumps in the road.

“On the search side right now, it’s kind of a seminal moment in that people are listening to how they can go about changing aspects of a very traditional and dated recruitment and hiring process,” he said.

“When we do some organizational audits, there may be instances where people are resistant to the need for the work … who may need to spend more time with our research side, who will show them the benefits of change. But I would say right now people are very open.”

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Hall, too, says there has been some pushback from CEOs who are resistant to signing the BlackNorth pledge, but is quick to say it’s not because they disagree with its goals.

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“The pushback I get from people is, ‘Listen, I don’t want to just focus on Black people. I want to focus on everybody,” he said.

“But what I say is, just pick a group and try to make a difference for them, then every other group will benefit. Just look at the most underserved people among us and think about how you can improve their experience.

“Black Canadians represent three-and-a-half per cent of the population but 60 per cent of all hate crimes in Canada are against Blacks. So maybe start there.”

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Hall says the most important thing companies can do is commit themselves to not just being against racism, but being anti-racist. Rather than simply shrug off a racist joke, for example, he says that joke should be called out immediately and lead to repercussions within an anti-racist environment.

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A report released this month by Deloitte further lays out a comprehensive framework for businesses to adopt that can help them address anti-Black racism. Not only does it include suggestions on how to make workplaces more accepting of Black workers — as well as allowing them into positions of leadership — it also promotes giving those workers their own space and platforms to discuss issues with each other and, ultimately, with company management.

“Every company should do this. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do,” Hall said.

“Once you start making that profound statement that ‘this is what my organization is about,’ it filters down through the entire organization.”

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The push to address anti-Black racism also goes beyond workplace environments — it’s also pushing to grow the Black business sector and improve Black Canadians’ economic opportunities overall.

The BlackNorth Initiative has helped raise $10 million with Dream Legacy Foundation and Ryerson DMZ to fund the Black Business Development Hub, which will support Black entrepreneurs and businesses.

And it’s creating a $65 million Homeownership Bridge program to provide BIPOC families with affordable housing, hoping to build 2,000 homes across the country.

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“If I’m a Black businessperson, and I want to set up a business, I should have access to capital to do that,” he said. “But other than that, they should also have access to mentors. They should have home equity. So that’s what we’re trying to build.”

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Hall says BlackNorth plans to release a report card this summer marking the one-year anniversary of the pledge, in order to hold companies accountable and keep its goals in the public conversation.

He hopes the group will become Canada’s answer to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the U.S., and maintain pressure on Bay Street to change the makeup of corporate Canada.

“We need people to help us to dismantle the barriers that exist, because we didn’t put the barriers there,” he said.

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Murray expects companies to continue doing the work toward diversity and anti-racism once they see the benefits that come from it.

“They’re seeing the value of bringing in perspectives of people who were not at the table, and in many cases have never been at the table,” he said.

“Everything has led to this moment where people’s eyes and ears are open — not only to the realities Black people face, but also to how much better things can be when we work together.”

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