Black oil exec working to make industry more inclusive

·3 min read
Dennis Bank is a vice president at Suncor's Edmonton refinery. (Submitted by Dennis Banks - image credit)
Dennis Bank is a vice president at Suncor's Edmonton refinery. (Submitted by Dennis Banks - image credit)

A Black oil executive who has found success in Canada's oil and gas sector is working toward making the industry more inclusive.

Dennis Banks has been working with Suncor in Canada for almost a decade and is vice president of its Edmonton refinery. He wrote a post on the company's website for Black History Month divulging some of his experiences and calling on employees to come together to do and be better.

Banks said the company has had many conversations about inclusive diversity for people of all backgrounds and that the industry has made progress.

"I stand as a living testament that we are making progress," Banks said in an interview with CBC's Radio Active. "I'm not going to tell you that it's perfect but it's better now than it was 20 years ago or 40 years ago."

Banks is sponsoring the creation of a Black employee network across the company, still in the process of being organized but currently sitting at about 120 members and climbing.

"I've had Black employees that didn't even know there were other Black employees in the company," he said, adding that some biracial employees would not identify themselves as Black for years.

"[They're] coming forward now to tell their story and to belong."

Black workers are getting the opportunity to share their experiences and support each other as well as educate their peers and coworkers, Banks said, as the sector, both in corporate offices and on the ground, is becoming more inclusive for people of colour.

But oil and gas is an industry he says is similar north and south of the border — mostly white males.

"At first you get the feeling that you're carrying the load for the entire race but then after a while you realize you're at tables because you belong there."

'Persevere and overcome'

Although his parents grew up in Jim Crow-era Alabama, Banks was raised in the Motor City itself: Detroit. While his siblings went directly from high school to the auto industry, his talent for math and science landed him at Louisiana State University where he got a degree in chemical engineering with an emphasis on petroleum.

Banks came to Canada from the United States in 2012 to work with Suncor. In both countries, he's had to deal with microaggressions and bias.

"I find it's not necessarily what you face is how you face it and how you persevere and overcome," Banks said.

Education has always been his tool of choice to combat bias. He recalls an incident at a hockey game when a man said Banks reminded him of Aunt Jemima.

"I turned it around, said 'Hey, you know, I love pancakes — true, that's not one of my favourite syrups.'

"And we proceeded to have a conversation where I let them know that type of comment isn't appreciated and why," he said, turning that negative experience into a positive educational opportunity.

"Now granted, 20 years ago that would have been a fight," he said.

While Banks says society has grown since his parents were making their way through the world, events akin to the massive groundswell of outcry after the death of George Floyd have been repeated time and again.

"Th events of the last year, it's been going on a very long time," he said, adding that he is excited to see what change has come of resultant conversations.

"But go back in time we had the same, similar conversations when MLK was killed, when Rodney King was beaten ... but I think each event, each opportunity propels us closer to equality and I'm hopeful in that regard."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.