She told them so.
Long before Maureen Jensen resigned as chair and chief executive officer of the Ontario Securities Commission this spring, she warned Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government that systemic discrimination was a persistent problem in corporate Canada.
Ms. Jensen spent years coaxing business leaders to improve diversity on corporate boards and in senior executive roles, but that boys’ club had no intention of giving women and minorities a fair shake. Women occupied just 17 per cent of the board seats at companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 2019.
Ontario’s “comply or explain” rules require listed companies to provide disclosure about women in top jobs, but don’t compel them to implement diversity policies or targets. It was obvious to Ms. Jensen that Ontario needed to beef up its securities laws.
But instead of following her advice, Premier Doug Ford blocked her diversity efforts and let the problem fester for the first two years of his mandate. Ms. Jensen declined comment for this column. It’s been months since she left the OSC, and now an expert task force appointed by the Ford government has reached the same conclusion she did: Ontario needs to strengthen its securities legislation to combat systemic discrimination.
“Investors require data on diversity on the board and in executive officer positions to make informed investment and voting decisions,” the Capital Markets Modernization Taskforce wrote in a report that’s serving as the basis of a public consultation this summer.
Maybe Premier Ford – who until recently didn’t believe that systemic discrimination exists in Canada – just needs to hear the facts from a man.
The task force is chaired by Walied Soliman, the Canadian chair of law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. Not only does he have a long history with Ontario’s PC Party, Mr. Soliman also sits on the board of the recently launched BlackNorth Initiative against anti-Black racism in corporate Canada.
Mr. Soliman and his fellow task force members, who include two women and BlackNorth co-chair Wesley Hall, will deliver their final recommendations to the government this fall. To their credit, they’re already urging Ontario to expand its diversity regulations beyond gender to include Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour (BIPOC). In fact, they’re rightly pushing for new rules requiring TSX-listed companies to set bold targets and timelines to increase diversity on their boards and in their senior leadership ranks.
“What should be the appropriate target for women and BIPOCs on TSX-listed company boards? One suggestion we have heard is 40 per cent women and 20 per cent BIPOC,” their report says.
By floating such targets and recommending a 10-year term limit for directors, among other proposals, the task force is signalling that Mr. Ford needs to be more ambitious than his Liberal predecessor. Former premier Kathleen Wynne wanted companies to appoint a minimum of 30 per cent women to their boards. They were supposed to have set that target by the end of 2017, and then achieve it in three to five years.
That hasn’t happened. As the task force points out in its report, just 22 per cent of companies have adopted targets for women’s representation in director roles. Mr. Ford is partly to blame because he ignored Ms. Jensen’s counsel and dropped the ball after becoming Premier in 2018.
Now it’s urgent that he make up for lost time. The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic has exposed uncomfortable truths about systemic discrimination, including in the corporate world. The international business community is finally on board, and Ontario can’t risk looking like a laggard if it hopes to attract capital and investment.
Any failure to act will be because of a lack of political will at Queen’s Park. The OSC is still doing its part. Grant Vingoe, who succeeded Ms. Jensen as OSC chair and CEO, is among the more than 200 Canadian senior business leaders who’ve signed the BlackNorth Initiative’s CEO Pledge to end systemic racism.
“Reporting on the gender diversity of boards and senior leadership of TSX-listed companies remains a focus for the OSC,” spokeswoman Kristen Rose said in an e-mailed statement. But just like his predecessor, Mr. Vingoe can’t crack down on companies that refuse to root out systemic discrimination unless his political masters give him a bigger stick.
Unless Mr. Ford enjoys eating crow, he’ll use the task force’s recommendations as a starting point and progressively raise the bar on those rules. Not only should he make diversity targets mandatory, he should give companies just two years to get on board.
Systemic discrimination is not new and companies have had plenty of time to do the right thing. Diversity is not a frill, it’s an essential component of corporate governance and risk management. Companies that flout the rules should be named, shamed and fined.
Think of how much further ahead Ontario would’ve been if Mr. Ford had just listened to Ms. Jensen. She warned him the status quo was not an option. And now his own task force has proven her right.
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