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A year on, experts find corporate anti-racist efforts progressing slowly

‘People are talking to us about culture. People are talking to us about governance’
People walk by a mural of George Floyd, airbrushed by artist Paul Archer on Fort St. in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. A new report shows many companies that signed a pledge to help end anti-Black racism still don’t have diversity, equity and inclusion plans a year later. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

When Dahabo Ahmed-Omer became the executive director of an organization dedicated to eliminating anti-Black racism in corporate Canada last August, it was normal for her to have up to 11 meetings a day.

Weeks earlier George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, had been killedin police custody and as fury over systemic racism erupted around the globe, companies were seeking Ahmed-Omer’s and the BlackNorth Initiative’s advice about allyship and promoting diversity.

One year later, Ahmed-Omer’s calendar is just as full as it was in the months after Floyd’s death. She sees it as a sign of how seriously companies are finally taking on issues of racism and representation, but knows there’s still plenty of work to be done.

“People are talking to us about culture. People are talking to us about governance,” said Ahmed-Omer.

“That tells me that we’ve opened up a massive can of worms and we need to get the worms out … and that’s been great to see.”

BlackNorth Initiative efforts have centred around a pledge it drew up in June 2020, when Kingsdale Advisors founder and “Dragons’ Den” star Wes Hall launched the organization.

The pledge asked business leaders to commit to a series of a measures that address systemic racism, confront unconscious bias and remove barriers preventing Black employees from advancing within their companies.

It was signed by 473 companies, including the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Air Canada, Cineplex Inc., Enbridge Inc., and Telus Corp.

The Initiative surveyed 182 of those companies between November 2020 and June 2021 and found half have a diversity, equity and inclusion plan in place. Twenty per cent are in the process of developing one.

“We’re moving a lot quicker than I had anticipated, and this is coming from someone who is Black, who is Muslim, who is a woman and who understands these issues at a deep level,” said Ahmed-Omer of the survey results, published Tuesday.

Half of survey respondents said they have a diversity leadership council, training on unconscious bias or racism and listening forums to encourage dialogue, while one-third have donation or sponsorship programs supporting Black advancement.

Only one in five surveyed said they engage with suppliers and partners from companies that are run by Black Canadians and about one in 10 have an internship programs focusing on Black people.

Ahmed-Omer acknowledged that action on equity, diversity and inclusion measures isn’t always as straightforward as it seems at the outset.

“I can imagine our allies and other communities, who are not embedded into the issue, and how complex it may be for them.”

Tomee Elizabeth Sojourner-Campbell said she is pleased with the commitments companies made after Floyd’s death, but in many instances “what I have not seen is a lot of concrete plans.”

“With the ones who made commitments and say that they are going to do the work, we need to now see that work,” said the Toronto-based consultant focusing on advising, learning and development.

By now, Sojourner-Campbell hoped BlackNorth Initiative signatories and other companies that pledged to change would have devised plans, studied how to address racial profiling and trained staff on anti-racism and social issues.

Those steps are among the earliest companies can take to address long-standing inequalities, she said.

A 2020 study from Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute found few Black people on the boards of large companies, agencies, hospitals, educational institutions and in the voluntary sector in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Halifax, Hamilton, London and Ottawa.

The study of 9,843 individuals revealed Black Canadians represented 5.6 per cent of the population across the eight cities studied, but occupied only 2 per cent of positions analyzed.

Other reports have confirmed Black Canadians are less likely to reach executive ranks and receive mentorship, and more likely to experience discrimination, in the workplace.

Even with new momentum, signatories of the Black North pledge reported a number of factors presented challenges to implementing the pledge, including hiring issues, representation at leadership levels, lack of staff engagement and questions around how to measure diversity baselines.

Making changes around equity and inclusion often faces pushback, doesn’t involve enough communication with the groups it’s intended to support and can be costly. That means it is often sidetracked, Sojourner-Campbell said.

“COVID has shifted the focus of some organizations away from doing the in-depth work around anti-racism, equity, diversity and inclusion because they have to now strategize and (think), ‘Do we have to lay off staff?” she said.

But that doesn’t mean meaningful progress hasn’t happened too.

Sojourner-Campbell feels optimistic about the conversations that have taken place over the last year, while Ahmed-Omer is determined not to let the pandemic or any other factor keep her from the work that needs to be done.

“We’re going to have challenges,” Ahmed-Omer said. “It’s part of the journey.

“But it’s what makes the journey so worthwhile.”

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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