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Wes Hall’s Black North anti-racism initiative: one year later

Canadian program encourages CEOs to join pledge to end anti-Black racism

Deeply shaken by ongoing events of police brutality and convinced that government alone could not solve the problem of systemic anti-Black racism, entrepreneur Wes Hall founded the BlackNorth Initiative a year ago to ask corporate Canada to make a pledge to end the blight with a seven-point action plan.
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As the BNI initiative celebrates its first anniversary this month, Hall and his colleagues say more CEOs should take part, in order to make meaningful change. And it’s not just Hall rallying for action. Board members, including Paul Desmarais III and David Johnston, former governor general of Canada, are encouraging powerful executives, who have not yet pledged, to understand why the initiative is ongoing and imperative to Canada’s future.

“Increasingly, society is looking for leadership on important issues like the need to identify and dismantle systemic anti-Black racism,” said Hall, who has the ear of many of these executives as founder of Kingsdale Advisors shareholder services and advisory firm. He is also the most recent dragon on CBC’s The Dragons’ Den show about entrepreneurs pitching venture capitalists.

“By signing the BlackNorth Initiative CEO pledge, business leaders signal to their employees and the market at large that they are taking anti-Black racism seriously – they are committing to action. CEOs know that a company with a diverse work force – one complete with diverse leadership and governance – is more productive and competitive. By doing the right thing morally and ethically, CEOs also serve investors and the bottom line by truly embracing diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The powerhouse board of BNI includes Victor Dodig, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce chief executive, Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. founder Prem Watsa, and communications strategist and philanthropist Donette Chin-Loy Chang.

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“After the events that unfolded last year, I felt it was important to find ways to engage with and support the Black community in Canada,” said Paul Desmarais III, chairman and CEO of asset management firm Sagard Holdings. “Wes Hall had gathered a great group of people willing to take tangible action, and I was happy to join this effort. At the same time, I started working with [Mckiney and Co. business analyst] Alexander Sinora to create the Black Wealth Club, to open my network to a group of young black leaders. I believe innovation and progress happen when networks collide and these organizations are helping create those opportunities.”

Hall and his BNI team say they were profoundly affected by the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Andrew Loku and many other Black people before them. It was in response to global demonstrations against racism and police brutality that took place throughout the summer of 2020 that they established the call to action.

“For too long, too many people in this country 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,” said Dahabo Ahmed Omer, executive director for the BlackNorth Initiative.

“Unfortunately, that’s not the case. In Canada, Blacks also face systemic barriers negatively affecting their lives and well-being. We looked at the history of systemic racism in Canada and realized that we’ve been going about it wrong. Government alone cannot solve this problem – it is the responsibility of corporate Canada to take a meaningful role in leading change.”

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Hall and Omer asked corporate leaders across Canada to pledge their organizations to policies and specific targets, aligning with a seven-step plan to end systemic anti-Black racism.

The pledge that they designed, working through and with the BlackNorth Initiative, includes a commitment to:

  • Increasing workplace conversations about anti-Black systemic racism and ensuring that no barriers exist to prevent Black employees from advancing within the organization;
  • Implementing or expanding education around unconscious bias and anti-racism;
  • Sharing best practices, as well as unsuccessful ones to help improve diversity strategies;
  • Establishing at least one diversity leadership council with Black leaders wherever possible, and sharing the plans for this council with the organization’s board of directors;
  • Ensuring that Black communities across Canada are aware of employment opportunities within the organization, with specific hiring goals of at least 5 percent within the organization’s student work force by 2025, as well as investment commitments of at least 3 per cent by 2025 of corporate donations and sponsorships to create economic opportunities in the Black community;
  • Building a pipeline to representation from the Black community on the organization’s board of directors and in the C-suite (this includes a goal of 3.5 percent of executive and board roles based in Canada being held by Black leaders by 2025);
  • Creating conditions for success by measuring progress, continuing to work on attracting and retaining and advancing talent from the Black community, and tying success in this area to senior executives’ annual performance scorecards.
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“Black Canadians remain grossly under-represented, while we’ve seen other minority groups advance,” Omer said. “The statistics speak for themselves. There are no Black CEOs in the TSX60. There are just six senior Black executives out of the 799, and just four out of 680 board members.”

Reflecting back on the first year of the BNI, Omer says the team is mostly proud that corporate Canada “has heard the call,” with more than 462 organizations having signed on. They have received support from both the general public and a vast professional community of lawyers, bankers and doctors offering to volunteer their time and skills. The BNI has also partnered with civic-engagement organization CivicAction to address anti-Black racism in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), and in communities across the country.

“This initiative connects C-suite established leaders with Indigenous, Black and racialized rising leaders in group conversations with a focus on accelerating leadership opportunities,” explained Omer.

Additionally, BNI is partnering with Kids Help Phone to provide around-the-clock support to Black youth in need.

It’s this kind of intricate, extensive commitment to end systemic racism that has attracted major corporate players to not only make the pledge, but to encourage others to take the commitment beyond last year’s news headlines by establishing additional networks.

Hall and Omer are still urging any CEO who hasn’t yet done their part to sign the pledge in order to demonstrate to their Black employees, customers, stakeholders and the Black community at large “that they are truly against anti-Black systemic racism.”

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For their board members, it is about confirming Canada’s role as a leading country both within and far beyond the boardroom.

“Two of Canada’s most cherished values are equality of opportunity and inclusivity,” said Johnston. “It is so important that all of us as citizens give full meaning and reality to these values. As we celebrate the first anniversary of BNI it is heartening to see we are making progress and that journey is one on which all Canadians should join.”

Those interested in volunteering with BNI can email with their background, skill sets and how they wish to help.