The murder of George Floyd, one year ago today in Minneapolis, Minn., sparked calls for change around the world including in Canadian workplaces.
Floyd’s death kicked off global Black Lives Matter rallies last spring and summer, as well as many hard conversations about anti-Black systemic racism between Canadian employers and employees. And in the wake of those initial talks and rallies, more than 400 Canadian organizations, including Enbridge Inc., IKEA Canada, Lifeworks Inc., Scotiabank and York University, have now signed the BlackNorth Initiative pledge since it was launched last June.
“From an employer point of view and from an employee point of view, once the Band-Aid has been ripped off, you can’t really go back,” says Paula Allen, global leader of research and total well-being at LifeWorks Inc., of the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death. “So if an organization [says], ‘Well, let’s just forget about everything that’s come to light. My employees will just fall back into line,’ I doubt that’s going to happen. I think they’d see more disengagement and turnover.”
York University is among the employers that isn’t forgetting everything that came to light. Last summer, it held a series of consultations with Black students, faculty and instructors to get “concrete suggestions about paving a way forward to begin addressing anti-Black racism,” says Sheila Cote-Meek, vice-president of equity, people and culture. In July 2020, the university signed the BlackNorth Initiative pledge; during Black History Month in February 2021, it publicly released its framework on Black inclusion; and it’s currently working on an action plan that will be released in the coming weeks.
“We haven’t waited until the action plan has been finalized to start the work that needs to be done,” says Cote-Meek. “For example, we launched a dedicated Black scholar hiring program for 2021/22 and through the provost’s office we have 15 recruitments under way. . . . One of the primary recommendations that came out of the framework was around addressing issues of underrepresentation of Black people in the system, both as scholars and within administration, so the hiring of Black scholars was seen as the first step around that.”
The university has also offered employees education and training around anti-Black racism. And Cote-Meek’s office is leading a review of York’s affirmative action policy with its faculty association and is looking for ways to enhance and extend that policy to other employee groups.
York has also already started a process of self-identification of Black faculty and staff and undertook a deep dive of the current data it has on all racialized employees to understand where underrepresentations exist, says Cote-Meek.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic last March, other racialized groups, including those of Asian and Indian descent, have also been the target of racism in North America and elsewhere. Allen says it’s key for employers to remember the impact the past 15 months has had on racialized employees. “Racism in our society is actually one of the social determinants of both physical and mental health.”
Employers that continue to invest in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the years to come will reap the rewards by fostering a happy, healthy workplace that attracts and retains a diverse pool of employees, she says.
And while events, such as the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death, briefly puts the public spotlight back on DEI issues, Allen believes many Canadian employers will continue to go beyond making platitudes to ensuring ongoing progress behind the scenes.
The BlackNorth Initiative pledge covers specific benchmarks and actions for signatories to take. Key actions listed in the pledge, include: increasing efforts to have difficult conversations about anti-Black systemic racism; implementing or expanding unconscious bias and anti-racism education; sharing best and unsuccessful practices; creating and sharing strategic DEI plans with boards; committing to hiring at least five per cent within an organization’s student workforce from the Black community; being part of reaching the goal of having 3.5 per cent of executive and board roles based in Canada held by Black leaders by 2025; and collecting data on race and ethnicity that can inform inclusive talent management goals.
Last year, “we didn’t just see the typical . . . sending out an email, ‘this is a terrible thing and I don’t condone it,’ but employers started making commitments — public commitments — around how they would make changes in their workplaces and their business practices,” says Allen.
“So those commitments are out there and no one wants to go back on something they’ve committed to [and] that’s really helped with the sustainability. . . . I think that how we go forward will be very different than what we’ve done in the past.”