More than 200 CEOs have signed a pledge to commit to ending anti-Black systemic racism within their companies as part of the BlackNorth Initiative that is quickly winning wide support throughout Corporate Canada.

The initiative, established last month by The Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism, asks Canadian corporate leaders to outline specific actions that will eliminate systemic racism within their ranks and bring more minority groups to executive positions in their organizations.

“Over the past couple of months, we’ve been shown over and over that it’s not enough to just not be racist,” BlackNorth chairman Wes Hall said Monday at the initiative’s inaugural summit, held virtually. “We must be actively anti-racist. We cannot just stand in solidarity, we need to move in solidarity.”

Within a few weeks of its founding, the initiative and its pledge have garnered major attention from Corporate Canada, which has long acknowledged its shortcomings in diversity initiatives. More recently, however, it has publicly grappled with the systemic racism that exists within its own organizations in light of recent conversations about racism in Canada and the U.S. and systematic moves to spotlight these issues.

Organizers of the project released a list Monday of 200 organizations that have signed on to support the movement, including 18 of the 60 companies that comprise the S&P/TSX 60 Index. Companies that have publicly committed to the movement have a total market capitalization of more than $1-trillion, according to the BlackNorth Initiative, and span industries from finance to education to retail.

Law firms, where Black partners are rare, as a Globe and Mail story reported last week, have also heeded the call. Cassels, McMillan and Gardiner Roberts signed on to the pledge Monday, joining previously announced firms Norton Rose, Stikeman Elliott, Bennett Jones and Wildeboer Dellelce.

The initiative’s board of senior executives includes Mr. Hall, executive chairman and founder of Kingsdale Advisors; Rola Dagher, chief executive officer of Cisco Canada; Victor Dodig, CEO of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce; and Prem Watsa, chairman and CEO of Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd.

Other recognizable companies that have pledged their support include Bank of Nova Scotia, Adidas Canada, Coca-Cola Canada, Facebook and Instagram Canada, and Canopy Growth Corp.

Alongside plans to expand unconscious bias and anti-racism education, companies say they will work to ensure that at least 3.5 per cent of their executive and board member roles will be composed of Black leaders by 2025, a number proportional to the number of Black Canadians in the country, according to the 2016 census.

CIBC’s Mr. Dodig said that, for him, pledging to be a part of the BlackNorth Initiative is not a sociological move, but an economic one. Urging companies to consciously expand their recruiting pool, to bring in talent from untapped sources, is beneficial, he said.

“Candidly, I believe this is going to drive economic growth, that this is going to be great for our country,” he said. “We want to make sure our talented Black employees feel like they have a shot at the top. We want our clients to see that we are a bank that represents the population we’re serving.”

The Queen’s University faculty of law has also recently partnered with BlackNorth, and at the summit, two Queen’s law students spoke about the isolation of being among the few Black students in their classes.

“Being one of three Black students significantly shaped my experience,” said Nigel Masenda, who recently graduated. He said friends would often say he was like a Black version of some prominent white lawyer.

“Flattering, but bothersome. Not because they compared me to a white lawyer, but because they could not compare me to a Black one. There are few Black lawyers and even fewer Black partners.”

Earlier, Mr. Hall highlighted that one of the most important benefactors of Queen’s in the late 1800s was Robert Sutherland, British North America’s first Black lawyer, who was not honoured by the school until 1997.

Mr. Hall also called out the lack of Black managing partners at Canada’s large law firms. (The managing partner of Bennett Jones’s Toronto office is Dominique Hussey, who is a Black woman, but the firm’s CEO is a white man.)

Last Friday, The Globe reported on barriers faced by Black lawyers on Bay Street, noting that based on a visual analysis of website photos and biographies of the largest 16 firms in Toronto (including their offices in other cities), only about 35 out of 4,000 partners are Black.

Sarah Qadeer, general counsel of Home Depot Canada and president of Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusion, a national organization of general counsel lawyers from more than 110 companies, said in recent weeks the group has formed a working committee with several large Canadian law firms and corporate law departments.

They have been discussing steps the legal community can take collectively to promote the pipeline and advancement of Black lawyers as well as those from other diverse backgrounds.

“With the distressing events of late, there was a desire to figure out, how do we concretely tackle that,” Ms. Qadeer said in an interview on Monday.

The Globe and Mail, July 20, 2020