An initiative to fight anti-Black racism signed by hundreds of Canadian companies could make businesses put their money where their mouth is when talking about diversity.
Over 200 organizations, including several cannabis giants, have signed the BlackNorth Initiative and publicly pledged to battle anti-Black racism this week. The initiative was created by The Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism.
By signing the initiative’s pledge, companies commit to work towards diversifying their workforce by hiring more Black students and by fostering Black employees for leadership positions.
Cannabis giants Canopy Growth, Corp. (TSX: WEED), Aphria, Inc. (NASDAQ: APHA) and Sundial Growers, Inc. (NASDAQ: SNDL) have signed the initiative, as well as the Ontario Cannabis Store and Field Trip Psychedelics.
“The response we’ve received is overwhelming,” the council’s founder, Wes Hall, said in an email. “In fact, the initiative launched because there were so many business leaders who came together to say they wanted to do something meaningful.”
Talk is cheap, says Omar Khan, who is the Hill+Knowlton Strategies national cannabis sector lead and an outspoken advocate for diversity in the Canadian cannabis industry. But he’s optimistic that a public pledge might make companies put their money where their mouth is and create systemic change.
It should be noted that Hill+Knowlton Strategies is doing pro bono work for BlackNorth but Khan says he is not involved.
The cannabis industry has a responsibility to include Black and Indigenous people in its prosperity as they were and continue to be disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and cannabis prohibition, Khan said. But beyond moral obligation, Khan says a lack of diversity will hurt the industry’s bottom line as companies will be disconnected to Black, Indigenous and people of colour communities.
Too often issues around diversity and inclusion are used as talking points without the follow through to make systemic changes in both recruitment and creating an environment to retain a diverse workforce, Khan says — but he hopes the initiative could change that.
Signing on to an initiative like this is a step in the right direction because it will create accountability between what a company says and what actions it takes, he said.
When companies sign the BlackNorth pledge they’re expected to track their progress and share their results publicly, Hall said.
“This is no different than a public company having to release their financial statement each quarter and explain to the market why they did or did not meet their targets,” Hall said. “We’re going to take the same approach. If companies don’t meet their targets, they need to tell the public why. And if they’re lagging behind, they’re going to get called out.”
But calling out a company’s actions only goes so far.
In early July Aphria was accused of discriminating against its migrant workers by the advocacy group Justice For Migrant Workers. J4MW said Aphria excluded greenhouse workers from hazard pay during the pandemic, and criticized the cannabis company’s partnership with Double Diamond — an agricultural company allegedly housing a dozen migrant workers in a single room during Covid-19.
Around the same time Aphria’s CEO Irwin Simon published a statement saying that he and his company stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Aphria did not respond to a request for comment about what steps it was taking to be anti-racist.
Khan says he can’t comment on any single business, but says, “Any company that does choose to sign on to this initiative and more broadly and have put out public statements reaffirming their commitment to diversity and inclusion, need to apply that diversity and inclusion lens through all of their business practices.”
The only quotas set by the initiative are for companies to hire 5 per cent of their student workforce from the Black community and to have 3.5 per cent of Canada’s corporate executive and board roles held by Black people by 2025.
It’s more important to address the fundamental underlying issues that lead to a lack of diversity than set quotas, said Khan.
BlackNorth’s goal is to advance the lives of the most marginalized groups in Canada, says anti-Black racism council founder Hall, which includes Black and Indigenous communities. After the committee has created meaningful change for Black communities, they’ll pivot to fighting anti-Indigenous racism, he said.
“Diversity for us isn’t just hitting certain check boxes or hitting hitting hiring goals, we need to take concrete actions,” a Sundial spokesperson said in an email. “We are committed to continuing to learn, listen and do better in terms of diversity and being anti-racist.”
In a statement, Canopy said CEO David Klein is actively involved in ensuring progress is made within the company to increase the representation of Black, Indigenous and people of colour employees at every level of the organization.
Top image of Toronto via Deposit Photos