Canadian companies must support anti-racism efforts with action, experts say

TORONTO — Tash Jefferies has tried to detox from social media in the last week, but any time she catches sight of social media or her inbox, she spots a constant flow of corporations speaking out in support of addressing racism after clashes in the U.S.

In those dozens of statements, she has noticed something is missing: action.

"Seeing companies just putting out a statement, just gets annoying, and I start tuning out those brands," said Jefferies, the Nova Scotia-bred founder of Diversa, a startup helping people of color and women get hired in the tech sector.

"Unless you're willing to actually make an action and make it a policy within what you're doing in your company, it's just lip service because everybody can do that and talk is cheap."

Jefferies — like so many other diversity and business experts — wishes companies were seeing the heightened attention around racism as an opportunity to make their workforces inclusive.

Pleas for ongoing action and support from the country's most prominent, well-funded and powerful companies comes after violence has broken out in several U.S. cities.

Police and the public have been clashing following the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who pleaded for air as a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for several minutes.

Around the same time Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Toronto woman, died after falling from the 24th-floor balcony while police were in her home, prompting questions about the role of officers in her death. Ontario's police watchdog has opened an investigation.

At weekend marches in Toronto and Montreal, Canadians rallied in support of Floyd, Korchinski-Paquet and efforts to combat the effects of racism, but it wasn't until recent days that companies began responding.

Executives at Manulife Financial Corp., Bank of Montreal and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce took to social media Monday with notes saying they feel "deep sadness and outrage" at recent events and that "we must all come together, to listen and to take action to end this injustice."

Others, including Aritzia Inc., Shopify Inc. and Lululemon Athletica Inc., made financial contributions to charities and advocacy groups helping the black community in Canada and abroad. 

"We haven't always got it right. Over the years it made us question if we had a right to speak up and we are privileged to have a voice and a platform," said Lululemon in its statement pledging $100,000 to the Minnesota Freedom Fund.

"We are passionate about every single human being valued. For this to happen we need to take action."

No company has landed on an ideal approach, said Jefferies.

She would like to see companies start looking at how they can bring diversity into their workforce, which she said can be as simple as opening up an internship spot for a black student or as broad as striving for more than the 30 per cent targets some companies use to ensure there is a wide range of representation in their ranks.

Companies, she said, will have the opportunity to do both as they replenish or add to their workforces when the economy starts to recover from the pandemic.

"When you expand or next hire, make sure that it's someone from an underrepresented group," she said. "There shouldn't be any excuses anymore as to why you can't hire people of colour," she said.

Tomee Elizabeth Sojourner-Campbell, a Toronto-based consultant focusing on human rights compliance, diversity and inclusion, said words need to be accompanied by ongoing actions.

"What I've seen in the past is folks will make mention of 'we stand together' or 'we'll work together to make change,' but rarely do they actually name anti-black racism...and then it's business as usual," she said.

"Statements, policies and protocols that have no implementation piece to them become nothing more than things that people refer to when things go wrong."

While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how companies should respond to racism, she recommends brands be as specific in their statements and approaches as possible.

She used coffee chain Starbucks as an example. It closed 1,100 Canadian stores among nearly 8,000 locations in June 2018 for the day anti-bias training after two black customers were arrested for trespassing when a Starbucks employee called the police.

"They focused on inclusion and they focused on how people feel so they did some of the emotional work, but it wasn't specifically to address anti-black racism. They used the diversity and inclusion lens," she said.

"As long as businesses and organizations use that lens they're going to miss the mark...because it's not just an interpersonal issue. It's a human rights issue."

Karlyn Percil, who quit Canada's banking sector after 22 years and has since become the chief executive at the KDPM Institute for Inclusive Behavior, has yet to see any company adopt a perfect approach but applauds companies that donated to Black charities.

She would like to see CEOs actually talk about what they are going to be doing differently.

"Saying your actions publicly increases accountability around inclusion, racism and around the systemic barriers that are not always visible," she said.

Companies, she said, should be creating or revamping diversity and inclusion strategies, turning to Black employee resource groups for advice and conducting racial bias training.

They shouldn't feel afraid to seek guidance or to start having tough conversations, she said.

Silence is not the answer either.

Percil said, "No one expects them to have all the answers but trying and messing up is better than not trying at all."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2020.

Companies in this story: (TSX:SHOP, TSX:CM, TSX:MFC, TSX:BMO, TSX:ATZ)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press