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Illustration by Christy Lundy

Women were already nearly absent from the country’s C-suites before COVID-19 hit. Now, the pandemic threatens to halt Corporate Canada’s tepid progress, a setback for women’s careers that puts an eventual economic recovery at risk.

Data analysis of top executives at Canada’s largest publicly traded corporations, compiled by The Globe and Mail, shows just 4 per cent of companies on the benchmark stock index have a female chief executive officer. That equates to nine women in the role out of 223 companies, as of November. Among more than 1,000 named executive officers at firms listed on the S&P/TSX Composite Index, a scant 13 per cent are women, the data show.

And more than half of the companies on the composite index – which account for 73 per cent of the total market capitalization on the Toronto Stock Exchange – have zero top executives who are women.

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Despite growing focus on diversity in the private sector, from mentorship and sponsorship programs to enhanced training and awards for the champions, Canada’s corner office remains almost exclusively the domain of white men. Representation among top business leaders does not remotely reflect Canada’s population, nor has it changed much in the past few years.

“I can’t believe it’s 2021, and we’re still having the same conversation I had in 1975. It’s just shocking,” says Maureen Jensen, the former chair and CEO of the Ontario Securities Commission, who has spent years nudging companies to put more women in leadership roles.

Women are still – in 2021 – under-represented in the corporate and economic sphere.

Canada has never had a female Bank of Canada governor. None of the Big Five banks has named a female CEO (though Laurentian Bank – which falls within the top eight – appointed its first female chief executive, Rania Llewellyn, in October). Just one of the five chief economists is a woman: TD’s Beata Caranci.

Even in emerging sectors such as tech and cannabis, men lead virtually all of Canada’s largest listed companies. At the country’s top think tanks, only one – the Conference Board of Canada – is run by a woman.

As part of a sweeping look at women in the workplace, The Globe gathered data from companies and proxy circulars filed in 2020 to get a current picture of diversity in corporate leadership.

In the public sector, a Globe analysis of publicly available salary records for tens of thousands of employees at municipal departments, provincial ministries, universities and taxpayer-funded companies found there are more men earning top salaries, more men on executive teams and more men running organizations.

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It’s harder to come by such detailed data for the private sector. But it is possible to glean insights through public filings, which list a company’s named executive officers, or NEOs, a category that typically includes the CEO, the chief financial officer and the next most highly paid execs (generally five in all). The private-sector data show that as of November, 2020, of a total of 1,049 NEOs at companies listed on Canada’s benchmark index, just 136 of them were women. That’s 13 per cent. Black women, Indigenous women and women of colour, meanwhile, hold just a handful of executive roles.

There has been modest progress on the board side, with a growing share of directors who are women. That’s not the case on the executive side, however. The proportion of female executive officers has remained largely unchanged since 2015, notes Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt in a recent report, which means younger women and girls still don’t see themselves reflected at the top of corporate Canada. And without role models, these powerful jobs may seem unattainable.

Now, the pandemic threatens even the meagre progress of the past few years. Women’s participation rate in the labour force plunged to a 30-year low in April. Though it has since largely recovered (for now), there are other troubling signs: Women in two age cohorts – those in their early 20s and late 30s – are leaving the work force, notes RBC deputy chief economist Dawn Desjardins, while women still on the job have seen their hours worked tumble more than among men. “Not only did women get walloped more quickly,” she says, “but now, as we’re looking to rebuild, they are coming back more slowly, and they are in the industries that are at a greater risk of a prolonged duration of not coming back.”

Stress and family pressures mean a third of Canadian women have considered quitting their jobs, according to a September survey for the Prosperity Project, an organization created to support women through the pandemic. A recent McKinsey study of U.S.-based companies found more than one in four women are contemplating leaving the work force or reducing their hours.

“Our recent research shows that the COVID-19 crisis could set women back by a decade,” says Toronto-based McKinsey partner Geneviève Bonin.

With so many women considering leaving the work force, “regardless of where they are in the pipeline, we’ll end up with far fewer women in leadership.”

As policy-makers grapple with a health crisis that’s crippling the economy, ensuring women return to work, climb the ranks and reach their full potential isn’t just in their interest; it supports families, communities and the economy as a whole.

Addressing gender equality in Canada could add $150-billion in GDP in 2026, according to McKinsey – the equivalent of adding an entire new financial services sector to the country’s economy.

Canada could learn from bolder initiatives in other countries.

In Australia, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency produces research and works with employers to improve gender equality. In the U.K., large employers must publish their gender pay gaps each year. (The program was suspended last year due to COVID-19 but will resume in 2021.) France has mandated that at least 40 per cent of directors on corporate boards are women. Germany is now enforcing quotas, and California is the first U.S. state to require companies have at least one female director.

Evidence shows that putting more women in leadership roles – both on boards and in the C-suite – spurs innovation, improves risk assessments, bolsters decision-making and resilience, and can ultimately boost financial performance. On a broader scale, more women at work will be crucial to driving Canada’s economic recovery.

The status quo has not moved the needle much. The question is, what will?

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The public-sector picture: Explore The Globe’s data by topic

The limitations of comply or explain

It was heralded as a bold, innovative measure back in 2015: Canadian companies would have to disclose information about gender diversity – including the number of women on their boards – or explain why they’re not doing so.

Maureen Jensen helped spearhead the move while she was at the OSC. It was meant as a first push toward improving gender diversity. “I got a lot of pushback,” she says. “What really surprised me is the number of people who actually wrote me from their own e-mails telling me I should get out of my job and let a man run with the position.”

Then there were the phone calls. “One of them was, ‘Why don’t you go kill yourself so a man can take your position?’”

Ms. Jensen kept speaking out, convinced that more diversity in governance leads to better decisions. “What we saw were some very big corporate failures, with really bad decisions being made by board members,” she says. And it’s because every one of them came from the same background, the same viewpoint, the same schools. So this is broader than just men and women; this is about having a club where you don’t let anyone who doesn’t think like you in. And that is a very bad thing for companies and for shareholders.”

Publicly traded entities, she notes, “are accessing other people’s money, and you have a fiduciary duty to your shareholders to do the right thing.”

Even so, as the OSC began to collect and publish comply-or-explain information each year, “it just went very slow. And that was very disappointing,” she says. Many of the explanations provided by companies for why no women were included contained the same exact wording: Our decisions are strictly merit-based. There are a lack of qualified female candidates. We don’t believe targets will result in identifying the best candidates.

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Maureen Jensen, former head of the Ontario Securities Commission, led efforts to have companies disclose and explain their gender-diversity statistics.

Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

Between 2015 and 2019, the percentage of women on the boards of S&P/TSX Composite Index companies did improve – to 28 per cent from 18 per cent, according to Catalyst, an organization that works to advance women in the workplace. The number in executive roles, however, barely budged – 18 per cent in 2019 compared with 15 per cent in 2015.

The dearth of women in corporate Canada has been a concern for ages. Half a century ago, a groundbreaking Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada report found women held fewer than 1 per cent of the top corporate positions in Canada. “The absence of women at the top means that the country is ignoring many first-class minds and abilities,” read the 1970 report.

Even today, when board seats become vacant, companies are far more likely to fill them with men, overlooking those first-class minds and abilities. Of the 405 vacant board positions in 2020, women were nominated to fill just 35 per cent of them – a declining share from a year earlier, according to Osler. This, despite the fact that thousands of women are qualified to sit on boards in Canada, according to the Institute of Corporate Directors, which has 5,930 female members.

The vast majority of companies – 93 per cent, says Osler – still don’t even have targets for female executive officers.

As for why companies are still not considering gender in NEO appointments, a common response is that they don’t want to compromise the principles of meritocracy.

“I find that such an offensive comment, let alone inaccurate,” says Kevin Thomas, CEO of the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE). “These are exactly the kinds of things you have to be challenging as investors, as shareholders, of these companies. We all know this is an issue that has to be dealt with – and that it has an impact on performance.”

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Some of the world’s largest investors – including BlackRock Inc., which manages more than US$7-trillion in assets – are calling attention to this, notes Mr. Thomas. “So a company that’s still holding out on developing its practice on this is not being responsive to investors. And I think they should be called out appropriately for that.”

Stock indexes are shown on the TSX's board in Toronto.

Chris Helgren/Reuters

The Globe contacted four companies that have zero women as named executive officers, zero women on their boards and no targets in their proxy circular disclosures. Three of them – Apollo Healthcare, Gamehost and Clairvest – did not respond or declined an interview.

Toronto-based Apollo’s 2020 proxy circular says the company (called Acasta at the time of its May filing) “does not presently have, nor does it intend to establish, a target regarding the number of women in executive officer or senior leadership positions.”

Gamehost’s 2020 disclosure states that the board “has not adopted a specific policy relating to the identification and nomination of women directors, does not consider the level of representation of women on the board in identifying and nominating candidates for election or re-election to the board, does not consider level of representation of women in executive officer positions when making executive officer appointments, and has not adopted targets regarding women on Gamehost’s board or in its executive officer positions.”

Waterloo Brewing did agree to speak with The Globe. Laura Falby, the company’s newly hired senior director of people and culture, says the Ontario craft brewer does have women in senior roles, including a brewing director and a maintenance supervisor, and aims to diversify its leadership – though targets can be too confining. “We’re not perfect,” she says. “I don’t think any company is perfect on this front at all. Because you’re continually learning, and you’re continually trying to be better at it. Diversity leads to better decision-making. So I would say, Are we where we want to be? No, but we value diversity and inclusion, and we’re on a journey.”

In the end, companies that refuse to change might be forced to. Ms. Jensen is among those who’d like to see governments and regulators require that companies set diversity targets for boards and executives.

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The federal government, meanwhile, have shied away from mandatory measures. Citing “underrepresentation in positions of influence,” the last federal budget introduced a “challenge” for companies to lift the share of women to 50 per cent in senior management and to 30 per cent for other groups, including racialized Canadians, Indigenous people and people with disabilities. These measures are voluntary.


Percentage of women declines

in higher-level positions

CEO

Men

C-SUITE

Women

SVP

86

VP

SENIOR

MANAGER/

DIRECTOR

78

74

MANAGER

69

ENTRY

LEVEL

63

59

50

50

41

37

31

26

22

14

SOURCE: McKINSEY & CO.

Percentage of women declines

in higher-level positions

CEO

Men

C-SUITE

Women

SVP

86

VP

SENIOR

MANAGER/

DIRECTOR

78

74

MANAGER

69

ENTRY

LEVEL

63

59

50

50

41

37

31

26

22

14

SOURCE: McKINSEY & CO.

Percentage of women declines in higher-level positions

Men

CEO

Women

C-SUITE

SVP

86

VP

SENIOR

MANAGER/

DIRECTOR

78

74

MANAGER

69

ENTRY

LEVEL

63

59

50

50

41

37

31

26

22

14

SOURCE: McKINSEY & CO.

Where are the women at the top?

Edie Hofmeister is used to being the only woman in the room. The former mining executive witnessed gender bias and a lack of inclusion firsthand. “Many times, there might have been an opportunity to do some kind of business trip that involves golf or fishing, or some kind of networking, and women just weren’t included. It sometimes felt like a good ol’ boys environment.”

She worked for Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources and stresses that she never experienced discrimination there. But the general environment wasn’t always welcoming. At the annual Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada mining conference in Toronto, she recalls sitting at a dinner next to a CFO who asked if she was a “booth babe,” referring to a time when some mining suppliers and exploration firms hired young, attractive women to sit in their booths. She was an executive vice-president and general counsel at the time. “Mining is definitely lagging behind,” says Ms. Hofmeister, who is now a consultant based in California.

Data collected by The Globe show how rare it is for women like Ms. Hofmeister to occupy top roles. Just 14.7 per cent of CFOs are women. As for the CEO role, nine women and 215 men hold the top job.

Put another way, there are more male CEOs named Michael at Canada’s largest publicly traded corporations than there are female CEOs.

The numbers are far worse when it comes to racial diversity – and many firms are squeamish about disclosing data. More than half of companies didn’t answer The Globe’s questions on racial diversity, but a rough estimate, based on manual scans of biographies, photos and names on websites, shows clear underrepresentation among Black, Indigenous and people of colour. The Globe was able to identify just one Indigenous NEO at the top 223 listed companies out of 1,000-plus executives, and one CEO who is a woman of colour. Over all, there’s been little improvement in recent years; data compiled last year, based on public filings largely reflecting 2018, show a similar percentage of female CEOs and CFOs.

In the financial world, representation is still – despite years of lip service – low at the very top. Among financial services companies listed on the benchmark index, fewer than 10 per cent of top execs are women, while among the Big Five banks, just two of 25 NEOs are women. The exception is Laurentian Bank, whose CEO, Ms. Llewellyn – born in Kuwait and raised in Egypt – is the first female CEO of a major Canadian chartered bank.

Raina Llewellyn is CEO of Laurentian Bank, the first woman to hold such a position at a major Canadian chartered bank.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/the Globe and Mail

The pace of change is so sluggish, a growing number of experts are urging more mandatory measures. Many of them now support the use of quotas, or at least required targets. “People are recognizing that there’s so many structural barriers that stop women and racialized people from progressing into those roles that targets or quotas are a way to balance that as we work to bring down the structural barriers,” says Camilla Sutton, former president and CEO of Women in Capital Markets.

“The concerns about tokenization are beginning to dissipate a little bit,” adds Ms. Sutton, who is now managing director at BMO Capital Markets. “It’s going to take us years of real work to be able to bring those barriers down. And so in the interim, quotas or targets can really work to balance out their level of the field.”

Quotas are increasingly common outside of Canada. France and Norway have long had quotas for gender diversity on boards, and in Germany, the government is now introducing quotas after years of voluntary steps to improve gender inequality did not work. “We are putting an end to women-free boardrooms in large companies,” says Franziska Giffey, the country’s family affairs minister.

Pressure is mounting from regulators and governments – and now, increasingly, from large institutional investors. BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm, is ratcheting up pressure on companies to put more women in executive roles. So is the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, the country’s largest pension fund, saying more diverse senior management teams make better decisions.

That kind of pressure is effective. When Ms. Hofmeister was at Tahoe, she recalls working on the company’s proxy disclosures; she knew BlackRock, then the company’s largest shareholder, was keeping close watch. They called, spoke with her and Tahoe’s CEO, and noted that the company only had one woman on its board – something they were “taking a hard look at,” she recalls. She remembers snapping to attention. “When you get a letter from a sizeable shareholder, you pay attention,” she says. “It’s the institutional and activist investors who are going to change the industry.”

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The CN Tower is reflected in one of the office buildings of Toronto's financial district. More experts are pressing for mandatory measures to make sure the corporate giants of Canada get women into positions of power.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Leaks in the pipeline

Humaira Ahmed is used to being an anomaly. The Victoria-based CEO of a tech startup grew up in Pakistan and narrowly escaped being married off at the age of 15. She studied software engineering there before immigrating to Canada at age 20.

Over the years, she has attended many tech conferences to network and meet with investors, and has endured men making inappropriate comments, talking about her looks or touching her back, and assuming she couldn’t possibly be a CEO because she didn’t fit the mould. “I’ve faced all kinds of adversity,” says Ms. Ahmed. “It’s exhausting.”

She founded Locelle Digital Inc., a platform that supports women’s career development in the tech sector and aims to reduce attrition in an industry that’s still overwhelmingly male. Women account for a quarter of Canada’s tech sector – a figure that has remained stagnant over the past decade.

COVID-19 has thrown more challenges her way. With two young kids at home during the lockdown, she has found herself caring for them all day and working at night, often until 2 a.m. “It’s been insane,” she says.

The pandemic is threatening to reverse many of the gains women have made, with the impacts particularly severe for women of colour in low-income yet essential roles. Many have either lost their jobs all together or are having to work while caring for children or elderly relatives, on top of navigating the heightened risks and stresses that come with working on the front lines.

As RBC’s Dawn Desjardins notes, women are exiting the work force at a higher rate than men, with the participation rate for women 15 years and older at its lowest level since 2002. And the longer they’re out of the work force, the tougher it is to re-enter as skills atrophy and networks fade. “When we get on the other side of this [pandemic] and people look to re-enter, it is certainly something we want to be monitoring,” she says.

In the banking world, a survey by Women in Capital Markets released in July found women are cutting back on their hours, taking leaves of absence and saying no to work opportunities. All told, 9 per cent of women in capital markets are considering quitting their jobs due to the impact of COVID-19.

That kind of exodus, says Camilla Sutton, means “we’ve just set ourselves back two decades. It would just be such a loss for the industry.” Women who leave the sector typically don’t come back, she adds. And if they do, it is often at a lower level than when they left.

Even before the pandemic, Canada’s pipeline was leaky. Men and women are typically equally represented in entry-level positions, but the number of women dwindles the further up the ladder they go, according to a 2019 McKinsey study. It cites a lack of promotions, fewer sponsors, everyday discrimination and biases as factors. It also notes that women experience more acute microaggressions as they move up the ranks. Employers’ commitment to diversity, according to McKinsey, has not actually resulted in meaningful progress in women’s representation.

This matters on many fronts. Women’s wages support families, contribute to consumer spending and boost the economy as a whole. Having women participate equally in the labour market would boost economic output by $100-billion per year, according to RBC.

The pandemic could derail what little progress there’s been. “These particularly alarming trends … could leave a permanent scarring and a setback for a lot of the progress that’s been made in the past,” says Mark Machin, president and CEO of CPPIB.

Back in November, Carolyn Wilkins, then the Bank of Canada’s senior deputy governor, put it simply: “We’re certainly not going to get a recovery that’s sustainable without women.” Ms. Wilkins – who was considered to be a front-runner to replace Stephen Poloz, making her Canada’s first female central bank governor – left last month after the job was given to Tiff Macklem.

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Tina Lee, CEO of T&T Supermarkets, stands outside one of the chain's outlets in Aurora. Three-quarters of T&T's C-suite executives are women. 'It’s a rare matriarch story,' Ms. Lee says.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Signs of change

Tina Lee is the CEO of T&T Supermarkets, the largest Asian supermarket chain in Canada. She, too, is used to being an “only.”

“For sure, I find myself in many environments where I’m either the only woman in the room or one of very few. I’m definitely almost always one of the very few visible minorities in the room, and I’m also usually the youngest,” says the 40-year-old Ms. Lee, who is also part of the Young Presidents’ Organization. “It’s pretty obvious there is a true lack of diversity at the most senior roles in corporate Canada.”

Not at T&T. Three-quarters of the company’s C-suite executives are women, along with 40 per cent of its senior managers and 43 per cent of the directors on its board. “It’s a rare matriarch story,” says Ms. Lee, who took over the business her mother started in 1993. The company, which was acquired by Loblaw in 2009, now serves more than half a million customers weekly.

Ms. Lee believes that having a team that is gender- and culturally diverse has strengthened T&T’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, in terms of communication, empathy, compassion, collaboration and preparedness. Her team actively sought out retail CEOs in countries such as South Korea and China for best practices on protecting workers and limiting transmission of the virus, and T&T was the first large retailer to have a mandatory mask mandate for workers and customers. As a result, Ms. Lee says it has had lower-than-average cases of COVID-19 among employees – 0.58 per cent as of Jan. 13, she says.

Gender, she says, played a big role in the company’s successful response to COVID-19, and cultural diversity “went even further in helping us make the right decisions. I’m very proud.”

Canada could also look to other countries for inspiration. In Australia, for example, a federal agency is dedicated to improving gender equality in the workplace and publishes detailed data on gender equality. (It also provides monthly updates on the gendered impact of the pandemic). “As far as we can ascertain, there is no other country in the world collecting the depth and breadth of data around workplace gender equality that we are,” says Libby Lyons, the agency’s director. Among the agency’s findings: Having a female CEO leads to a 5-per-cent increase in the market value of Australian ASX-listed companies, or the equivalent of AUD$79.6-million on average. Still, it notes: “Progress toward gender equality has been too slow even though there are strong economic arguments underpinning the case for equality.”

Closer to home, Vancouver-based miner Teck is changing the language of its job ads to be more inclusive; a foreman, for example, is now called a supervisor. Halifax-based utility Emera Inc. is tracking the gender pay gap each year and raising wages if it uncovers a disparity.

Linda Seymour, CEO of HSBC Bank Canada, says it's 'detrimental to your business not to have a diverse work force.'

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Some CEOs openly support targets for women in executive roles. At HSBC Bank Canada, the country’s seventh-largest bank, 60 per cent of senior executives are women, including its recently named president and CEO, Linda Seymour. “You have to set measurable goals for people because what gets measured gets done,” she says. “And we can’t just keep talking about this. We have to take action.”

For HSBC, that means tackling unconscious bias in its processes, from hiring to promotions to salaries. “If you don’t have a diverse work force – whether it’s gender, ethnicity or LGBTQ – if you’re in a service industry, you’re not reflecting the thoughts and the needs of your client base,” says Ms. Seymour. “So it’s actually detrimental to your business not to have a diverse work force.”

In Vancouver, Eldorado Gold has adopted targets both for directors and executives. Half of its board members are women, along with one in six of its top execs. Its goal is to have 30 per cent women in senior management by 2022. It’s also making a conscious effort to bring more women into its work force – not just in Canada, but wherever it operates. In Turkey, for instance, it employs a female superintendent at its underground mine, as well as the first female long-haul truck driver in the country.

George Burns, Eldorado’s president and CEO, says setting targets has been key to ensuring this remains a priority. “To be successful in a global business,” he says, “you need to be agile and collaborative. And in order to do that, you need to bring in lots of different views in your decision making.”

With data analysis by Chen Wang and research by Andrew Saikali

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Faces of TSX

There are
female leaders
out of TSX Composite Index companies*
*As of November 30, 2020

    Images of 224 chief executive officers (and CEO-equivalents) at companies listed on Canada’s S&P/TSX Composite Index shows, as of Nov. 2020, 215 men, nine women and few people of colour. There are more CEOs at these companies named Michael than there are women. The silhouettes reflect CEOs whose photos were not available.

    Source: Company handouts/social media, LinkedIn, Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail, Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press, Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail, Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail, Aaron Harris/Reuters, Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail, Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Globe and Mail, Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail, Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press, Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail, Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

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