Reflecting on Black History Month and Canadian Blood Services’ focus on diversity, equity and inclusion

By Graham Sher, CEO Canadian Blood Services

Before getting into this blog I want to acknowledge the privilege from which I write it. I am a white man. I have a leadership position in a large organization and I have the platform to write this piece. I originally sat down to draft this blog to reflect on the importance of Black History Month. I felt it was important to use my privilege and platform to uplift the work of Black individuals and shine a light on this important month.

We’ll be well past Black History Month by the time you read this; but the work must continue beyond February and our organization’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) remains strong.

Now having lived a full year through the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is aware of yet another disease that disproportionately affects Black individuals and People of Colour.

Canadian Blood Services research on COVID-19 seroprevalence rates (meaning the study of COVID-19 antibodies to determine rates of infection in certain communities) has been led by Sheila O’Brien, associate director of epidemiology and surveillance.

Dr. O’Brien’s work over this past year has confirmed that racialized Canadians are more likely to have antibodies against COVID-19 than white donors and the disparity seems to be widening over time.

According to the latest results, racialized Canadians continue to have higher seroprevalence rates (2.5 per cent) compared to donors who self-identify as white (1.35 per cent).

The past year has underscored, in so many ways, the continuing and various layers of racial injustice that exist and the importance of times like Black History Month to specifically focus on these issues.

Black History Month was originally founded to dedicate time to call attention to the under-appreciated, ignored or actively hidden contributions that Black individuals and communities have made to our society. It’s one month dedicated to highlighting and celebrating Black people, yet it is also a time to commit to ongoing actions against anti-Black racism that should be equally done throughout the year.

I’m from South Africa and grew up under an apartheid regime where racism was explicit, rampant and indeed state sanctioned. The thing that was not explicit – especially in white communities – was talking about it. So profound was the machinery of separation that it was almost hidden, invisible and “someone else’s problem.” As I entered my university years in the early 1980s, I began to get exposure to and a real sense of the deep, entrenched and profoundly harmful effects of systemic racism. It took the wisdom, courage and tenacity of people like Nelson Mandela to finally bring an end to the apartheid era. While I was already living in Canada by the time Mandela became President of South Africa, he has remained one of the most powerful influences on me as a human being and on my approach to leadership to this day.

To see the voices, activities and stories being shared in celebration of Black history and heritage over the month of February reminded me of the importance of recognizing from where I come, of reflecting on and learning about the lived experiences of others, and continues to imbue in me a sense of optimism and hope for a better future for all.

The work that has been done to highlight Black perspectives at Canadian Blood Services last month (and over time) is an important part of our progress and learning. I applaud those of you who participated in telling your stories for Black History Month. As an underrepresented minority individual in your workplace, sharing what that has felt like and what you’d like to see change, I’m sure must have been uncomfortable and challenging. In doing so, your integrity comes through, and your courage is evident.

Anika, Elodie, Karl , Akintunde — I very much appreciate your openness and your honesty. It’s not your responsibility to fix our diversity problems, but the fact that you gave voice to some of them was a welcome and important step in our diversity, equity and inclusion journey.

When it comes to Canadian Blood Services’ ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion work, our employee experiences are just one important piece we need to learn from and work on. We also have a vital role to play in contributing to greater equity in the overall health system in Canada.

As mentioned previously, COVID-19 has demonstrated yet again that Black communities face disproportionate threats to their health. And still, the health system has flaws in the ways it is set up to treat patients from marginalized communities and sectors of our society. The social determinants of health are a crucial factor that require we pay attention to the roots of inequity and discrimination, as much as we do to the medical therapies for illnesses such as COVID-19.

Let’s reflect for a moment on some of the work we do at Canadian Blood Services. A majority of our stem cell registrants are white; we have a shortage of registrants who are Black, Indigenous or a person of colour (BIPOC). This means that when a BIPOC individual is in need of a stem cell transplant as part of their treatment, they are less likely to find a match.

For greater context, we currently have 6,913 Black individuals registered to be stem cell donors (which makes up 1.53 per cent of the total registry). This is much lower than we’d like to see. Our cord blood units have surpassed our goal though, and 62 per cent of our donor pool is made up of donors from a diversity of backgrounds (5 per cent of which are Black registrants, which is much higher than our adult pool).

There is still much progress to be made; how we recruit, engage and learn from Canadians from these marginalized backgrounds matters a great deal and is something we are working hard to improve.

There are many layers to our diversity, equity and inclusion journey; it is a long journey and change takes time. You have my personal commitment that progress will include (but will not be limited to):

  • More equitable hiring practices.
  • Clearer paths to leadership positions for BIPOC individuals.
  • A dedicated, web-based resource for historically marginalized groups (employees, donors, potential donors or patients).
  • Better practices for engaging with donors and employees from historically marginalized groups (whether that marginalization is based on ethnic identity, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability or any other identifying characteristic).
  • Diversification of our stem cell and cord blood registry to better serve diverse patient groups across the country.
  • Strong and ongoing encouragement from the board of directors to the Ministers of Health that the board renewal cycle (in the fall of each year) be used as an opportunity to recruit directors from historically marginalized groups (whether that marginalization is based in racial identity, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability or other.)
  • Ongoing evaluation of the federal government’s 50 – 30 Challenge and how Canadian Blood Services might use this as a benchmark for our own evolution toward greater diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels of the organization.
  • To continue to progress towards behaviour-based screening for all donors, rather than a waiting period for men who have sex with men. (More information on this topic can be found here)

These are just a few of the immediate goals we are working toward and I look forward to keeping all employees and all Canadians updated.

May we all take the learnings from Black History Month and this past year and carry them with us in our work and in our lives outside CBS. Canada’s history is the history of all its peoples, and this includes Black Canadians. Just as it includes the history and lived experiences of Indigenous peoples and other Persons of Colour, of Canadians who identify as LGBTQ2+, or in any other way. If we are to truly fulfil our role as Canada’s Lifeline, it is our duty to acknowledge our past, to engage with all aspects of our diversity, and to meaningfully build a more inclusive and equitable future for all.