Office buildings in Toronto’s financial district

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, dozens of financial services firms released anti-racism statements and made financial commitments in support of Black communities.

Many firms also signed the BlackNorth Initiative (BNI)’s pledge, committing to having Black people hold at least 3.5% of executive and board roles based in Canada by 2025 and make up at least 5% of their student workforce.

A year after the pledge launched, it had almost 500 signatories, including dozens from the financial industry. The number of signatories remains around 500 today.

“Since inception in 2020, we’ve seen significant strides and commitments from our signatories in addressing systemic anti-Black racism,” said Dahabo Ahmed-Omer, CEO of BNI. “There’s been some companies that have done really well, and others who are still trying to figure it out.”

For example, among BNI signatories traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, 3.3% of board members were Black in 2022, according to a report released this year by The Diversity Institute at the Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto.

“It does make you proud because I remember at the beginning, people thought 3.5% was way too high,” Ahmed-Omer said. “But I don’t know if people realize that 3.5% was the number to catch up [demographically].” Black people constitute 3.5% of Canada’s population as of the 2016 census.

Ahmed-Omer said much of the pledge’s early years were spent having difficult conversations and diagnosing challenges.

Initially, signatories told BNI they had trouble finding Black candidates, but the concerns largely dissipated after the second year of the pledge. Ahmed-Omer attributes this change to a job board started by BNI, as well as referrals BNI made to executive search firms that focus on diversity.

Today, the main challenges for signatories are data collection and privacy.

“A lot of members of the workforce feel as though if they self-identify [as Black or another minority], that it will go against them in some way,” she said, adding that companies must explain to employees how disclosures will help improve equity.

Progress within financial services

BNI receives annual reporting from its signatories, and keeps that information private. Ahmed-Omer said the organization uses the information to keep signatories accountable and determine where signatories need help with challenges, as opposed to naming and shaming those that fall short.

“We know [reaching the goals] is a shared accountability,” she said.

To determine how financial services firms are progressing toward their commitments, Investment Executive analyzed the public filings of 20 industry firms and two financial regulators that signed the BlackNorth pledge, and requested more information when those filings were unavailable or unclear. (Most institutions did not report their BlackNorth progress in their public filings.)

Three of the 20 firms have met the executive goal, with another four publishing their progress toward the goal. Seven have reached the board goal and 10 have met the student goal. (Some of the 20 firms do not hire summer students.)

“We’ve been talking to [firms] about the idea of succession planning and bringing in more representation by creating vacancies,” Ahmed-Omer said. “We don’t want anyone to be removed [from a position]. That speaks against the idea of equity in the space. … Our advocacy has always been, ‘How do we create space?'”

Larger organizations tended to make greater strides, or at least were more comfortable sharing the data.

The four members of the Big Six that signed the pledge — Bank of Montreal, Bank of Nova Scotia, CIBC and National Bank of Canada — have made significant progress on their pledge commitments, with all having met the board goal and the student hiring goal thus far. CIBC also has met the executives goal, with 4% of its executives being from the Black community as of Oct. 31, 2023.

Of the major insurers that signed the pledge, Manulife Financial Corp. has met the board goal.

The pledge has a public sector version, which has been signed by two financial regulators: the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) and the Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Ontario (FSRA).*

FSRA’s version of the pledge included only one numeric commitment: to hire 5% of the student workforce from the Black community by 2025. “The pledge was signed shortly after FSRA was established. Our pledge was reflective of our status as a new organization,” a spokesperson said in an email.

FSRA has exceeded its goal, with 20% of the regulator’s student hires now from the Black community, it said.

As for the OSC, “there are currently no executive roles held by Black employees,” an OSC spokesperson stated, explaining that the data is based on annual self-reporting. However, “we have expanded our partnership with BlackNorth to becoming a Signature Membership Partner. This membership is critical to the OSC because it supports our goals of working with community organizations, to attract and retain diverse talent, including from the Black community.”

The OSC also created a dashboard in early 2023 to analyze diversity data.

Ahmed-Omer said BNI will request final pledge-related reporting from signatories on May 25, 2025 — the fifth anniversary of Floyd’s murder — with the goal of sharing overall progress in time for the organization’s fifth anniversary on July 20, 2025.

Pledge 2.0

Also on May 25 of next year, Ahmed-Omer said BNI will unveil its “Pledge 2.0,” which will include more ambitious representation goals. (BNI declined to share figures.)

“It’s going to be an opportunity for people [and firms] to recommit to their commitments,” she said.

Further, BNI will use the lessons learned since 2020 to implement a monitoring and evaluating framework for signatories that will help companies gauge their progress against other firms. The organization will also continue its workshops, peer-to-peer learning initiatives, scholarships and bursaries, along with other core programs, she said.

Ahmed-Omer acknowledged that the political climate for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives has changed since the widespread urgency of 2020. But she said the backlash and complacency that exists now also existed prior to Floyd’s murder.

“Historically, attention [tends to] turn to the Black community when something really awful happens,” she said — and that shouldn’t be necessary to spur action. “Do we need the televised murder of another Black man to know there’s still work to be done?”

Ahmed-Omer said the progress made by corporations thus far is encouraging, and hopes firms build on the momentum.

“[Floyd’s murder] had such a great impact that we said were going to do everything we could to bring about change,” she said. “It’s important, if we’re going to be people of honesty, that we keep our promises and our word. And I don’t think we’re there yet.”

*After this story was published, FSRA provided Investment Executive with updated information about its commitments and progress. The article has been revised accordingly.