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Corporate Canada rushed to join BlackNorth Initiative two years ago, but a new Globe survey shows that enhancing diversity is still a challenge

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Kike Ojo-Thompson, Founder and CEO of the KOJO Institute.Dimitri Aspinall/The Globe and Mail

Some of the largest companies in Canada that announced high-profile commitments to address anti-Black systemic racism two years ago have made major strides in improving the number of Black employees hired and elevated into executive roles, a Globe and Mail analysis has found.

But those companies remain among a minority of signatories of the BlackNorth Initiative – a 2020 pledge aimed at tackling systemic racism – to make substantial progress toward the diversity goals they committed to meet over five years.

On three prominent metrics – the number of Black employees, Black executives and Black directors – only about 10 per cent of the 481 companies that signed on have reported an improvement in any of those categories over the past two years.

Among 145 companies that responded to The Globe’s survey in the spring of 2022, the median percentage of Black employees increased to 4.8 per cent, up from 3.7 per cent in 2020, before companies signed the BlackNorth pledge.

A Globe survey shows lack of progress two years after BlackNorth Initiative’s launch. Five experts weigh in with strategies for Canadian companies

But 70 per cent of companies that signed the pledge either did not respond to The Globe’s survey this spring about the racial composition of their work force, or said they did not track that data. Thus, improvements in the number of Black and other racialized employees since 2020 were only apparent among the minority of companies that responded to The Globe with detailed data.

“I think it’s safe to say that a low response rate correlates to the slow amount of change that is happening,” said Kike Ojo-Thompson, founder and chief executive of the KOJO Institute, a Toronto-based diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy.

While projects such as the initiative encourage companies to assess themselves and provide external accountability, they also highlight areas in which corporate Canada has yet to improve.

To Dahabo Ahmed-Omer, executive director of the BlackNorth Initiative, it’s no surprise that many companies are slow to make progress. “It’s not just about putting a signature on the dotted line. That’s not what this initiative is about,” she said.

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Wes Hall, Executive Chairman of Kingsdale Advisors, founded the BlackNorth initiative amid a wave of global Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by a white police officer.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The initiative, a Toronto-based non-profit organization, was founded by Bay Street financier and philanthropist Wes Hall in July, 2020, amid a wave of global Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by a white police officer. Broadly speaking, the initiative encouraged employers to commit to targets to raise the number of Black employees, and to ensure no barriers exist for Black employees trying to advance.

Companies were challenged to commit to a seven-pronged pledge over five years, including promises to have at least 3.5 per cent of board and executive roles occupied by Black people by 2025, and ensure Black student hires make up 5 per cent of the overall intern population of a workplace. Signatories also committed to investing at least 3 per cent of corporate donations in organizations that create economic opportunities in the Black community.

The initiative was swiftly embraced by corporate Canada. Within days of its launch, more than 200 prominent companies, including Rogers Communications Inc., most of the Big Five banks, and multinational heavyweights such as Coca-Cola and Adidas signed on. Many were quick to issue news releases, reiterating their commitments to diversity, and promising to address anti-Black systemic racism within their workplaces.

Over the following 12 months, close to 500 companies of all sizes – including The Globe – signed on. BlackNorth itself expanded – in headcount and the value of corporate donations it received – as it became the pre-eminent entity advising corporate Canada on diversity and equity.

This spring, The Globe surveyed all 481 companies that have signed the pledge to assess progress toward the five-year goals. The survey was similar to The Globe’s survey last year of 209 companies that signed the pledge in July, 2020.

The Globe asked companies to respond to an 18-question survey based on the seven goals in the pledge, and gave companies roughly six weeks to respond.

The questions were designed to determine how the diversity of the companies’ work forces – particularly the composition of Black employees – has changed since the summer of 2020. The Globe also collected data on the number of Black directors and executives.

The Globe showed some improvement itself in the number of Black executives and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) employees in its work force. Currently, 10 per cent of executive roles are held by Black employees, up from zero in 2020.

The Globe doesn’t track the total number of Black employees, but says 30 per cent of employees are now BIPOC, up from 25 per cent before The Globe signed the pledge in late 2020. However, as a private company with a small board, The Globe does not have a Black board member.

Critically, just 30 per cent of BlackNorth signatories – or 145 companies – responded to The Globe’s survey, significantly lower than last year’s response rate. Twelve additional companies did not respond, but provided separate written submissions on how they worked toward meeting their diversity goals.

Among the companies that responded, many either chose not to disclose numerical data on the racial composition of their organizations, or said they did not track it.

However, almost all the companies that responded, even those that did not last year, said they have established diversity leadership councils and come up with a strategic “diversity and inclusion plan,” which were two requirements of the BlackNorth pledge.

Other key findings of The Globe survey from the 145 companies that responded:

  • The median number of Black employees across those companies increased over the past two years – from 3.7 per cent in 2020, to 4 per cent in 2021, to 4.8 per cent in 2022.
  • The median number of BIPOC employees also increased – from 25.6 per cent in 2020, to 31.9 per cent in 2021, to 33 per cent in 2022.
  • The median number of Black executives increased from 0 per cent in 2020, to 1 per cent in 2021, to 2 per cent in 2022.
  • A majority of companies tracked the number of Black directors on their boards. The median percentage increased from 0 per cent in 2020 and 2021, to 0.5 per cent currently.
  • There was a marked improvement in the number of companies that tracked diversity data since signing the BNI pledge. For example, before signing, just 40 per cent of the 145 companies said they tracked data on the number of Black employees. In 2022, the proportion increased to 60 per cent.
  • 30 companies with more than 5,000 employees – including Manulife Financial Corp., SickKids hospital and HSBC Canada – made significant gains in the number of Black directors. The median number of Black board members was 6.5 per cent in 2022, increasing from 2.35 per cent last year.

The results were, for the most part, better than last year, when a majority of companies made little to no improvement in hiring or elevating the number of Black people, mainly because they did not have the right systems in place to track diversity data.

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Dahabo Ahmed-Omer, executive director of the BlackNorth Initiative.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Ahmed-Omer, the BNI executive director, said she could not comment specifically on why the response rate to The Globe’s survey was so low, but said it is crucial for companies to turn their diversity commitments into reality. When asked whether public accountability by corporations on those commitments was important, Ms. Ahmed-Omer said it is “absolutely key,” and emphasized that BlackNorth’s own internal surveys tracking companies’ progress on their pledges usually yield a high response rate.

Brooke Graham, the incoming head of diversity and inclusion at the laboratory services company LifeLabs, found it “disappointing” that 70 per cent of companies The Globe surveyed chose not to respond and make their data public.

“We talk about performative allyship,” Ms. Graham said. “Signing the pledge is a step in the right direction, but it’s important that the public, that Black people in this country, can actually see companies committing to what they signed up for.”

Some prominent companies that did not respond included Enbridge Inc. and Air Canada. Wealth manager CI Financial and beer giant Molson Coors declined to comment on their diversity goals. (Public filings show that at the end of 2021, Air Canada had roughly 19,800 employees, and 387 of them self-identified as Black based on an internal voluntary survey.)

“It’s easy to sign a pledge,” said Ms. Ojo-Thompson, of the KOJO Institute. “But it’s important to understand where these commitments sit in terms of the hierarchy of importance for a company. Do they really want to bring in more non-white employees? Are they committed to disrupting their culture?”

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Sonia Kang, Canada Research Chair in Identity, Diversity, and Inclusion, at the University of Toronto.Dimitri Aspinall/The Globe and Mail

Other big names, such as Coca-Cola, Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. and Adidas, chose not to provide diversity statistics to The Globe, but sent statements describing their diversity initiatives instead. Fairfax is led by BlackNorth’s co-chair, Prem Watsa. A Fairfax spokesperson said it was more meaningful to describe the company’s actions than fill in a survey.

But for Sonia Kang, Canada Research Chair in Identity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the University of Toronto, the public collection and reporting of data is key to holding organizations accountable for their promises.

“It’s a concern. I think you can assume that either they did not collect the data, which in and of itself is a problem, or they did not have improvement, or things got worse,” she said. It’s a pattern Dr. Kang has observed in her own research into companies’ approaches to diversity. Many ideologically agree with the idea of having a more diverse work force, but struggle to prioritize the execution of it.

Richard Myers, the Toronto-based founder of Global Business Leaders of Colour (GBLOC), an online social network of more than 2,500 Black leaders and executives, says hitting numerical metrics can be a challenge for Canadian companies compared with those in the United States, which has more advanced requirements for companies to report and audit diversity metrics.

“A lot of the initiatives that were launched after the death of George Floyd have done what they set out to do, which is get people talking about Black issues who were not talking about them before,” he said. “But it is not up to these organizations who got the initial ball rolling to all of a sudden take on the role of being a governing body. That is not their job and unfortunately in Canada, we do not have similar processes like they do in the United States to hold companies accountable.”

Rogers Communications is one company that has moved the needle over the past year. The telecommunications giant employs more than 25,000 people across Canada. Currently, 4.6 per cent of employees are Black, up from 3.6 per cent in July, 2021, while 1.5 per cent of executive roles – vice-president and above – are held by Black employees, compared with 1.3 per cent in 2021.

Over the past year, Rogers expanded its recruitment pipeline by teaming up with Black Professionals in Technology Network and Onyx, organizations that help bridge the gap between Black talent and career opportunities, as well as support the retention and promotion of Black talent. In total, 11 hires were made through the partnership with BPTN and one through Onyx.

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Robert Davis, KPMG Canada’s Chief Inclusion & Diversity Officer and Chair of the Board of Directors of KPMG in Canada.Eduardo Lima/The Globe and Mail

Accounting giant KPMG also outperformed in terms of Black hires. In 2020, 3.2 per cent of the company’s 8,000 employees identified as Black. As of March 31, 2022, 3.8 per cent of 10,000 employees identify as Black. But boosting Black representation in executive ranks is a greater challenge.

Companies are increasingly offering training and mentorship programs to help Black managers rise through the ranks, but those programs can take up to a year to complete and are only part of addressing the issue. At KPMG, the proportion of executives who are Black already exceeded the pledge’s target when the company joined, at 4.2 per cent, but that number hasn’t budged since then.

“In two years, we cannot realistically expect material change at the leadership level. Leaders don’t happen overnight. We’ve got to build the pipeline, we’ve got to mentor, we’ve got to provide lots of opportunity,” said Rob Davis, a partner at KPMG Canada who serves as chief inclusion and diversity officer as well as chair of the firm’s Canadian board.

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David Noel, Scotiabank’s senior vice president of global HR services.Eduardo Lima/The Globe and Mail

At Bank of Nova Scotia, the proportion of Black employees in executive roles has risen from 2.1 per cent to 2.5 per cent over the past year.

But the bank still has work to do to reach the 3.5-per-cent threshold set out in the BlackNorth pledge.

“I think that is something that will take longer,” said David Noel, senior vice-president of global HR services at Scotiabank, in an interview.

“At the executive level, we need to ensure that we have a pipeline of employees who are ready, and that means sometimes giving them experiences at the lower level to ensure that when these opportunities come up, that they are ready.”

Carl James, a professor of education at York University who holds the Jean Augustine chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York’s faculty of education, believes initiatives such as the BlackNorth pledge are welcome opportunities for companies to look at the number of Black employees they have, but any change in the racial composition of a work force needs to be accompanied by an organizational culture change.

“It’s not just about the number of Black bodies you hire,” he told The Globe. “You have to ask: What practices existed in these companies over the years that might not have taken into account the diversity of the population? Are institutions ready for more Black people in the work force? Can they bring their entire selves to work, or do they have to conform to an existing culture?”

Since signing the pledge, York itself has increased the number of Black employees from 3 per cent to 3.5 per cent of its work force. More than a quarter of York employees are racialized people, a six percentage-point improvement from two years ago. The university, did not, however, divulge the number of non-white members of its board of governors, although a photo on York’s website appears to show a majority of white governors, and just one Black one.

One of the most important facets of creating an inclusive workplace, according to Prof. James, is to ensure leaders are equipped to make equitable hiring decisions.

“Who is hiring? Are we staffing the right people at the top? The interviewing that managers do, and the assessments they make around applications is absolutely critical. It will automatically lead to a more diverse workplace,” he said.

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As a Black woman who has held multiple jobs in government and the private sector in the U.S. and Canada, Ms. Ojo-Thompson said she has encountered various forms of structural racism, often non-overt.Dimitri Aspinall/The Globe and Mail

Like Prof. James, Ms. Ojo-Thompson believes the key question corporate Canada needs to ask itself is: How and why did the organization exist for so long without Black people?

Ms. Ojo-Thompson said when Black Lives Matter protests erupted two years ago, she was inundated with calls from companies asking her how they should approach the shifting conversation about anti-Black racism. “I asked them: What problem are you trying to solve? They said … well … George Floyd was murdered. And so right then, I saw there was this strange relationship many places had with the Black identity. It was something that was ‘over there,’ that didn’t affect them.”

As a Black woman who has held multiple jobs in government and the private sector in the U.S. and Canada, Ms. Ojo-Thompson said she has encountered various forms of structural racism, often non-overt. “There are the typical racist tropes – that I’m stronger, louder and scarier than everyone else. And these tropes exist because Black people fall on the bottom of the racial hierarchy and that informs what white folk and other racialized people presume about Black capacity.”

Workplace racism can be overt and subtle, according to Mervyn Allen, co-chair of law firm McMillan LLP’s commercial real estate group. “People are mostly polite. Having said that, there have been times I have shown up at dinners and other settings, where I’ve felt uncomfortable, because I sensed that people did not expect me to be there,” he said.

BlackNorth’s Ms. Ahmed-Omer spends much of her job dealing with signatories of the Initiative who face challenges not just in hiring, but also in promotion and retention. “It’s good to bring Black people in, that’s the representation part. But how does that Black body feel in the workplace? What are the processes for promotions and do those processes have hidden biases?”

Avoiding tokenization of non-white employees is an important facet of retention, says Dr. Kang, of the Rotman School. Tracking diversity statistics can itself make a racialized employee feel like they were just hired to fill a quota, she said.

“It can be dehumanizing. And on top of it, many of these non-white employees are asked to head up diversity committees and do all this extra work,” she added.

The accounting firm EY Canada told The Globe it had implemented a “reverse mentorship program”: Mentees of the EY Black Professionals Network will help mentor the company’s leadership team on career challenges faced by Black professionals and other racialized groups. In return, these employees would have the “opportunity to benefit from the coaching and mentorship of the firm’s senior leadership.” Programs such as this, while noble in their intentions, can be controversial, according to Ms. Graham of Diversio, because they place the onus on Black employees to essentially teach their white bosses about racism.

“Mutual mentorship is definitely a diversity strategy. But it has to come out of an organic relationship that is cultivated between colleagues and bosses. It will happen naturally if there are more people of colour in a work force,” she said.

In response to the criticism, EY spokesperson Victoria McQueen said the EY Black Professionals Network designed the program to “create space for active allyship among Black and non-Black leaders.” She added that participants have said it has been valuable to develop a relationship with a leader they might not normally have a chance to work with.

Ultimately, Ms. Ojo-Thompson says, much of the success of diversity and inclusion programs rests on whether white leaders really believe structural and systemic racism in a workplace is an issue and how much of a role they play in it.

“I am not a fan of the ‘story time’ stuff, where everybody navel gazes at the pain of Black people. White leaders need to have the fight in them to really change things.”

Here’s how companies that responded to The Globe’s BlackNorth survey have fared so far on diversity metrics

481: Number of BlackNorth Initiative signatories surveyed by The Globe

70: Percentage of companies that did not respond to The Globe’s survey

10: Percentage of companies that reported an improvement in either the number of Black employees, Black executives or Black directors in their work force over the past two years

4.8: Median percentage of Black employees

2: Median percentage of Black executives

0.5: Median percentage of Black board members

30: Number of companies with more than 5,000 employees that made gains in the number of Black directors on their board

89: Percentage of companies with a diversity and inclusion plan

35: Percentage of companies with at least 5 per cent Black student hires for internships in 2022

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