Honourable senators, I rise in response to the Speech from the Throne where the government acknowledged the fact that: “For too many Canadians, systemic racism is a lived reality.” This government pledged to address systemic racism and committed to do so in a manner informed by the lived experiences of racialized communities and Indigenous peoples.
Today I want to focus on yet another reason why we must relentlessly tackle the inhumanity and injustice of the historically entrenched issue of systemic racism in Canada.
The evidence is clear that when we only offer words or symbolic responses to racism, we choose to be a less prosperous nation. This is because racism does not just economically and socially disempower a quarter of our population who are visible minorities and Indigenous peoples, but it creates a barrier to our collective prosperity.
So in my response to the Speech from the Throne, I will focus on three points: that systemic racism is an undeniable historical and current reality in Canada that can only be addressed through direct and explicit action; that, as our institutions become systemically diverse and inclusive, powerful social and economic opportunities will be unlocked for all Canadians, not just a quarter of our population that is racialized and Indigenous; and that the Senate of Canada has a constitutional responsibility to fight racism and to demonstrate leadership by becoming systematically diverse and inclusive as we work to unlock the powerful source of opportunity for future generations.
I come at this issue as a White man in his early 60s. For 90% of my life, I had virtually no appreciation of the extent of my White privilege. I never appreciated just how consistently my being White and male placed a very helpful and ever-present finger on the scale of opportunity throughout my life. I’ve always been highly supportive of the opportunities that diversity unlocked, but I am embarrassed to admit that I never understood that just not being racist was never good enough. I had a responsibility to be actively anti-racist.
My journey began only far too recently. One memorable moment was on November 8, 2018. I know I’m not alone in recalling the deeply moving story of a Second World War soldier’s quiet heroism, as told by our colleague Senator Dan Christmas. He was speaking of his father, retired Pte. Augustus Christmas.
The tragic irony in this powerful story was that the thousands of Black and Indigenous Canadians who bravely volunteered to fight for our collective freedoms in the First and Second World Wars did not benefit from the fundamental right to vote and many other freedoms available to the White soldiers with whom they served, including my father and my uncles.
Just last week, Senator Oh spoke powerfully of the shocking spike in anti-Asian racism over the past year. This frighteningly rapid increase in abuse, violence and hate crimes tragically illustrates the extent to which racism lurks just below the surface of Canadian society as we speak.
As a White man, I have the luxury of being able to speak and think about racism when I want. Sadly, in Canada, in 2021, this luxury remains inaccessible to Indigenous, Black and other racialized Canadians.
Throughout our history, property ownership has been tied to privilege and power, whether in terms of its investment value, in the context of land claims and the constitutional treaty rights of Indigenous Canadians, accessing the right to vote, or as a basic qualification to become a senator.
In this context, it’s unacceptable that many African-Nova Scotians still do not legally own their homes in 2021, despite, in many cases, it having been in their family for centuries. Some cases can be traced back to the Crown offering freedom and land to Black Loyalists in exchange for their military service during the American Revolutionary War, 250 years ago. When the war ended, Black Loyalists were given “access” to plots of land, but too often not provided legal title to that land.
For far too many families, this problem continues to this very day.
In Downey v Nova Scotia, Christopher Downey was fighting for legal ownership of land his grandfather acquired in 1913, in North Preston, Nova Scotia — Canada’s oldest Black settlement. For 50 years, Mr. Downey and his wife lived on this land and battled to gain title to their home. The question of ownership was settled only this last July, when the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruled in Mr. Downey’s favour, suggesting that systemic racism had played a key part in keeping the title to the land out of his hands.
When you have to fight government all the way to the Supreme Court just to secure legal title to a home that has been in your family for more than a century, it is no wonder many racialized Canadians feel that our legal system does not reliably deliver justice. Again, our Indigenous peoples know this issue all too well.
We also know that race continues to be a basis for suspicion of guilt in Canada. Earlier this year, on January 28, someone attacked and disarmed a Montreal police officer during a routine traffic stop. Mamadi Camara, an engineer and PhD student with no criminal record, phoned 911 to report the incident. The police then arrested Mr. Camara, a Black man, and detained him for six nights in jail. They initially defended their actions as justified based on “evidence investigators had at the time.” The police apologized when he was eventually released — again, after six nights in jail — and just this past week they stated that they hoped the recent arrest of a new suspect would help Mr. Camara put the issue behind him.
Beyond the human costs of systemic racism, there is a massive economic cost. This economic cost is not only disproportionately borne by racialized Canadians; the loss of opportunity for all Canadians is even greater because diversity is a powerful economic driver.
The Harvard Business Review published an article two years ago that examined profitability in the U.S. venture capital industry, and whether the diversity of the leadership teams had an effect. The authors found that investments made by partners from homogenous ethnic backgrounds were 26% to 32% less profitable than those made by partners who were from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
A 2017 McKinsey study of 1,000 companies in 12 countries found that those with the most ethnically diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to outperform their peers in profitability.
Diversity and inclusion create a path to increased prosperity for all. The evidence demonstrating this fact exists because of courageous and determined leaders who created opportunity and success despite powerful systemic barriers.
Colleagues, we have a responsibility to honour that courage and determination by helping to remove the systemic barriers that prevent economic opportunity being scaled across our entire economy. But we’ve got a lot of work to do. Only 12% of SMEs are owned by a visible minority and 1% by an Indigenous Canadian. These are a fraction of the rates of ownership that we would expect relative to their share of the population. Given that diversity is central to innovation and economic success, we have to do a much better job harnessing the entrepreneurial capacity of every Canadian.
One of our structural challenges is that the strategic decision makers who lead our financial system still lack diversity.
In June 2020, Bloomberg reported that, of the 188 top executive and board positions at Canada’s eight largest financial institutions — six banks and two insurance companies — minorities make up only 10% of top executives and 8% of board seats. Ironically, these massive Toronto-based businesses are situated in a city where more than half of the population is foreign-born and identifies as a visible minority.
I worry that these organizations may never challenge the comfort of the status quo. I worry that they might see change as an obligation versus an opportunity. I worry that they represent the foundation of our financial system, and their inaction puts us all at a competitive disadvantage relative to the diversity we’re seeing globally, when the evidence clearly demonstrates that diversity increases profitability.
So far, I’ve argued that systemic racism is an undeniable historic and current reality in Canada that can only be addressed through direct and explicit action, and if our institutions become systematically diverse and inclusive, powerful social and economic opportunities will begin to be unlocked for all Canadians.
I would like to finish by considering our role and responsibilities here in the Senate.
The Senate of Canada’s website reflects the 2014 Supreme Court of Canada ruling when it describes the Senate’s role as having “. . . evolved from defending regional interests to giving voice to underrepresented groups like Indigenous peoples, visible minorities and women.”
As senators, our job is to ensure that Canada’s under-represented voices are clearly heard and thoughtfully considered. It’s our job.
Each time I have reflected on the government’s pledge to “address systemic racism,” I have come to the conclusion that this issue is far too important to be the sole responsibility of any one government, party or organization. Rooting out systemic racism will require the collective and ongoing commitment and efforts of countless leaders and organizations. We must all actively, inclusively and measurably do better.
Given our constitutional responsibility in the Senate, I don’t believe we can take a “Do as I say, not as I do” approach to this issue. We need to show leadership. Canadians deserve decisive leadership and action that go well beyond platitudes. Many powerful speeches in this chamber have called for action on systemic racism in Canada — most recently by Senators Oh, Jaffer, Mégie, Bernard, Moodie and Ravalia — and last summer by many other honourable colleagues, during the chamber’s emergency debate on racism.
I’d particularly like to highlight a gentle but powerful challenge from Senator Ravalia, who said:
We must continue to interrogate our own biases and prejudices, and we must face up to the culturally entrenched prejudices that may exist within our own cities and provinces. Opening up this dialogue is critical to creating a more just and inclusive Canada, and ultimately a stronger and more resilient Canada.
I could not help but connect Senator Ravalia’s challenge to the constitutional role of the Senate. We senators have a constitutional responsibility that requires us to interrogate our own biases and prejudices, face the culturally entrenched prejudices that may exist in ourselves and our institution, and by doing so help to create a more just, inclusive and ultimately stronger and more resilient Canada.
During our emergency debate on racism, I was inspired by Senator Anderson’s strong call to action when she said:
. . . across the country, Canadians are taking stock. They are looking outwards, demanding change of our institutions. They are looking inwards at the personal work that is required to be anti-racist. . . .
It is no longer good enough to just “not be racist.” If Canada is to access the economic and social opportunity that is unlocked by becoming systemically diverse and inclusive, we must become overtly anti-racist.
We have seen some action in the Senate, such as Senate appointments being increasingly representative of the diversity of Canada, and we held the first ever emergency debate on racism in Canada. I believe these modest steps are not nearly enough, though, because, like so many of us who lead or work in the Senate of Canada, I have no idea what it is like to be subjected to racism or racist acts.
As an institution, we have a 153-year history and, for the most part, our rules have been written and our customs established by privileged White men who, like me, were also not subjected to racism. As a result, I think it’s fair to conclude that many of our rules and customs are likely to include biases and prejudices that the privileged White men who crafted them had.
Across my career, I have found that change requires sustained effort, supplemented by a breadth of perspectives and backgrounds, and insightful measurement. Only then can you create a culture that readily identifies areas for improvement, monitors and critically evaluates the implementation of solutions and course corrects as needed.
I will conclude with my hope that here, in the Senate of Canada, we will demonstrate leadership through our actions: First, by systematically working to become one of the country’s most diverse and inclusive employers; second, by demonstrating leadership by committing to identify and address any unconscious or systemic racism, prejudices and biases in the Senate; and third, by implementing management systems that will help us to reliably unlock the opportunity that diversity and inclusivity have proven they can deliver.
Canada’s economic engine is not firing on all cylinders. Our society is providing unequal access to justice. The solution rests in leaders like us having the courage to root out systemic racism in our lives and institutions. It is our job. When we do better, so will all Canadians. Thank you.