“Business as a Force for Reconciliation”

Remarks delivered at B Corp’s BLD Day 2018 on May 24, 2018: 


I want to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered here today as guests upon the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueum peoples, and wish to pay my respect to their Elders both past and present.

I also wish to acknowledge that this acknowledgement in itself is not enough - that it is how we carry ourselves and the actions that we take that breathe life into these words and demonstrate a true commitment to reconciliation. I encourage each of you assembled in this room to reflect upon how you honour the unceded territories upon which you live and work and the actions you are taking (and can take moving forward) to truly and fully embody the values and ideals of inclusion, equity and justice we hold dear.

And as we prepare for a day of movement building here at BLD 2018, I want to recognize those working tirelessly within the reconciliation movement, including Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, who earlier this month was appointed to the Order of Canada. Chief Joseph speaks often and eloquently about namwayut - a Kwakwaka'wakw word for “we are all one.” I can think of no truth more fitting than this with which to guide us through our time here together today.

If I may open our time together with a small request - please close your eyes, ground yourself in this moment, and take a moment to visualize Canada through your eyes. What do you see? And more importantly, who do you see?

When I think of the territories now known as Canada, I picture myself in Bella Bella, listening to Heiltsuk youth sing in their ancestral language, despite every attempt across generations to extinguish Indigenous languages across this country. When I think of Canada, I see those at the frontlines of defending our coastlines from the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, intergenerational strength in the face of challenges to Indigenous sovereignty and true nation-to-nation relationships. And I think of strong Indigenous voices from coast to coast to coast and the allies walking alongside them, a testament to how far we have come as a country. The conversations we are having, from dinner tables to the halls of our federal government, would have been inconceivable only a decade ago, a long overdue but welcome transformation.

Yet when I think of Canada I also think of how much further we still have to go. For when I picture Canada, I also think of the inexplicable lack of justice for the families of Tina Fontaine and Coulton Boushie. I think of those families who have waited far too long for the full implementation of the Jordan’s Principle following three non-compliance orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. And I think of the families of the well over 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in this country, and that fact that we continue to live in a country that fails to provide all women with respect, dignity and safety, with Indigenous women disproportionately impacted by violence and abuse.

In a country that ranks 10th on the world’s Human Development Index, no citizen should go without access to clean drinking water, yet there are currently over 100 boil water advisories in First Nations communities. In a country whose GDP is $1.53 trillion, no child should live in poverty, yet 1 in 2 First Nations children who live on reserve live in poverty, according to a 2016 CCPA study. We can and we must do better - better for our youth today, and better for our youth tomorrow. Because until every child in this country is able to fully realize their hopes, their dreams, and their potential, there is work to do.

Which brings us to today, to those of us assembled in this room. It is time to move from awareness to action on reconciliation, as we each have a role and a responsibility to crafting communities and a country in which every voice is heard and valued. To do so, we must first better understand how we have arrived at this moment, as well as the acts, both big and seemingly small, that can make us each a catalyst for change. And before any of that can occur, we must first unpack the very term itself.

For if reconciliation as a term and as a movement can feel at times overwhelming, it is due to the depth and scope of the work that lies before us. So much complexity is entangled around the term, because we are working to address one of the most multi-faceted, intergenerational and intensely personal issues of our time. For reconciliation is more than carefully constructed statements delivered in the House of Commons, or a territorial acknowledgement delivered as a formality at the start of an event. True reconciliation involves redesigning longstanding structures and redistributing power while reimagining our relationships with one another and to Mother Earth.

I see reconciliation as the continual and unwavering pursuit of a better tomorrow, one in which cross-cultural dialogue, understanding, respect and recognition together contribute to true Nation-to-Nation relationships that enable deeper connections and enriched lives for all of us who walk this world together. It is a framework that provides space for increased dialogue, reflection and understanding, and it is a movement that is transforming this country.

I draw my understanding of the term from the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Around the same time as B Lab worked to certify its first Canadian B Corp, the commission was established with a mandate to document the Indian residential school system, one of the cruellest and darkest components of a conscious strategy to (in the words of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A MacDonald) “assimilate the Indian people in all respects... as speedily as they are fit to change.” The framework for the schools had been established within the Indian Act, legislation which at the time of its passage formalized the reserve system, prevented Indigenous peoples from forming political organizations, made illegal the speaking of Indigenous languages and the undertaking of traditional religious practices, and banned potlatches and other cultural ceremonies.

The residential school system was a deliberate and systematic attempt to break cultural, spiritual and community bonds between generations as it targeted Indigenous children, whose innocence and youth were seen as means with which to expedite the assimilation process. Under the system, Indigenous youth were forcibly taken from communities of comfort and care and placed in environments engineered to strip them of their languages, cultures, and identities. In the schools, adherence to the English language, Catholic teachings and the rules of the schools were strictly enforced at the expense of educational achievement. Students were abused, improperly fed and failed to receive adequate healthcare, while the levels of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and violence experienced by the students over the course of the residential school system’s existence produced trauma that manifested in post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse disorder and depression. Without the regular love and affection of their families or healthy relationships modelled to them as children, these impacts could be passed to their own children, who became intergenerational survivors of the residential school system.

Over the course of their existence, 150,000 Indigenous children passed through the halls of over 130 residential schools across Canada, schools whose last doors closed only in 1996. For context, in 1996 I was 6 years old, the same age as many of those children forcibly stolen from their families.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report in 2015. Its opening paragraph strikes to the heart of our shared history that we must confront:

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”

Within this final report, the commissioners also imparted upon us a question - “now that we know about residential schools and their legacy, what do we do about it?” This question was accompanied by 94 Calls to Action, a roadmap with which to begin to address the trauma and harm caused by the residential school system. While it is important to note that the commission focused specifically on one aspect of the Crown’s colonization efforts, it provides us a space in which to begin a long journey of truth, healing, justice and renewal.

The TRC’s final report and Calls to Action have galvanized support and brought new momentum to the reconciliation movement. Now, as a country, we must find ways with which to embed reconciliation as a core value for all Canadians, as intrinsic to our identities as all the tired clichés of double doubles and ice hockey, and significantly more meaningful. It is time to reshape conversations, restructure institutions, and reimagine what is possible.

In light of this, I turn to you - the B Corp community. The B Corp movement began with a seemingly contradictory and courageous premise - that businesses, long seen as entities ensnared in a race for maximum profit and growth at all costs, could in fact be stewards of positive social change AND deliver returns to investors and shareholders. That idea, enshrined within the B Corp’s Declaration of Interdependence, has grown to a global community of over 2,500 companies across across 50 countries. You have helped to shift the focus of business from one purely of profit to a broader definition of wealth, one that accounts for the wellbeing of employees, communities and the environment. And in doing so, you have helped to redefine the future of business.

The B Corp community is thus one filled with societal disruptors, actively reimagining our world to more positively benefit all. And so, as we near the tenth anniversary of the first Certified B Corp in Canada next year, I stand before you with a call to action - for the B Corp community to rise to meet a new challenge, leveraging its position at the forefront of inclusive and innovative practices to reshape the role of business in reconciliation. To explore not only “business as a force for good,” but business as a force for reconciliation.

What would this look like? Reconciliation begins on a deeply personal level - to undertake this work, and to be able to clearly articulate to others its urgency in a way which resonates not only in their minds but in their hearts, demands reflection, listening and learning. This can begin with a reading of the foundational documents (the TRC final report and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) and works by Indigenous writers. Follow the vibrant community of Indigenous voices on Twitter, whose tweets will provide context and perspectives not always reflected in mainstream news sources. Learn whose territory you live and work upon, and whose Nations have been stewards of them since time immemorial. And throughout all of this, reflect deeply upon how you currently perpetuate or help to dismantle systems of power and privilege, the intersectionality of this space with other allied movements of underrepresented voices and communities, and the ways in which unconscious bias can creep into our daily lives.

As you learn and grow, bring others along on your journey. As a business leader, this can begin with a staff dialogue or workshop around reconciliation and cultural competency training for your team. With this foundation, your organization can then begin to explore ways with which to embed reconciliation within your organization by updating or revising your business policies and practices. This could include partnerships with Indigenous-led organizations for procurement opportunities, creating a more welcoming space for Indigenous voices on your Board of Directors, or amending HR policies to include a cultural leave policy for your staff. The opportunities are truly limitless.

The late, great James Baldwin once remarked that “the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” It is our responsibility and obligation as leaders to keep the fires burning, to illuminate the path forward for others who will come behind us. It is something that the B Corp community has demonstrated an ability to do, and one that I hope it will continue to do as it deepens its commitment to reconciliation. To each of you gathered in this room, I encourage you to reflect upon what reconciliation means to you and what reconciliation could mean within the context of your business. And to the B Corp community at large, I challenge you to think critically around what it would look like if reconciliation were to become both a core value of the B Corp community, and one day, a key indicator of the B Corp Assessment framework.

As we opened, I would like to close with a request to again close your eyes, and this time (if you are comfortable), to clasp the hands of those seated next to you. I want you to picture the Canada we are building together and to feel solidarity with your peers. We are strongest when we are united, for there is nothing more powerful than bold ideas pursued by a community of equally bold thinkers and doers.

It is 2018, and it is time for action. It is my hope that you will join in this collective journey, and I look forward to exploring these ideas with you further over the course of our time together here today.

Thank you.


Alexander Dirksen