Canadian business leaders launch anti-racism project

Jun 17, 2020
Move comes amid growing pressure for companies to address racial inequality

A group of senior Canadian businesspeople has launched a new council and initiative aimed at increasing racial diversity among the country’s boards and executive teams. The move comes amid growing calls for governments and companies to address racial inequality following the deaths of African Americans including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.

The Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism, which is launching what it calls the BlackNorth Initiative, is founded and chaired by Wes Hall, executive chair and founder of shareholder services and governance firm Kingsdale Advisors. According to an announcement of the launch, the council is co-chaired by Victor Dodig, president and CEO of CIBC; Prem Watsa, chair and CEO of Fairfax Financial Holdings; and Rola Dagher, president and CEO of Cisco Systems Canada.

The council has invited senior leaders from the top 250 listed companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange, more than 100 of the biggest private businesses in Canada, major banks, insurance companies, international companies with a significant presence in Canada and the country’s largest asset managers to take part in the BlackNorth Initiative’s first summit, scheduled to take place virtually on July 20, 2020.

Those attending will be asked to sign a CEO pledge and provide a statement on what their organization plans to do to combat the lack of diversity and get rid of racism in society in general. The council notes that progress has been made in Canada in terms of gender diversity on boards, and states that the same must now happen in terms of race.

Canadian companies have for the past five years been required to disclose certain information regarding the representation of women on boards of directors and in executive officer positions. A 2019 Canadian Securities Administrators study found that 73 percent of issuers had at least one female director, up from 66 percent in 2018; 33 percent of issuer board vacancies were filled by women, up from 29 percent in 2018; and 50 percent of companies have adopted policies relating to female representation, up from 42 percent in 2018.

Amendments to the Canada Business Corporations Act that took place this year require diversity disclosure by public companies with respect to ‘designated groups’ as defined under the Employment Equity Act: women, indigenous people (First Nations, Inuit and Metis), people with disabilities and members of visible minorities.

‘For too long too many have said, This is not my problem; that anti-black systemic racism and hate are somehow distant from the lives we live here in Canada. I am pleased to join with Mr Dodig, Mr Watsa and Ms Dagher to say enough is enough – it’s time for anti-black systemic racism to end,’ Hall says in a statement.

‘Doing nothing now is akin to telling George Floyd to get up when he was powerless. Inaction is what has happened every other time the black community has cried out. A system that oppresses blacks is not a problem for blacks to fix; it’s for the gatekeepers of the system. Those gatekeepers who fail to act must be moved aside. It’s time for a new and truly inclusive era.’

A request for further comment from Kingsdale Advisors was not returned. Requests for comment from spokespeople at CIBC, Cisco Systems Canada and Fairfax Financial Holdings were not returned immediately.

The launch of the council comes as socially responsible investors in the US are discussing how they can further support efforts to address racial inequality following recent protests around the world.

Investors who spoke to Corporate Secretary sister publication IR Magazine recently highlighted three main areas where engagement and proposal-filing activity has focused in the past: improving corporate diversity and inclusion programs and reporting, addressing concerns with government or police contractors and addressing the private prison system in the US.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) – a coalition of more than 300 global institutional investors – is now working with a small group of its members on a formal position on racial equality. Nadira Narine, senior program director at ICCR, says this has been a significant issue for ICCR members since the Covid-19 pandemic began amid concerns that the virus was having a greater effect on black Americans. She says the deaths of Taylor, Arbery and Floyd have placed a greater focus on the need for a public policy platform.

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