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Policy-making needs an equity lens, all year round

Black History Month presents an annual opportunity to reflect on the achievements and legacy of Black Canadians. But the month itself is more than that. It is also a good time to consider the impacts our systems of public policy development and implementation have in terms of anti-Black racism.

And for many, like myself, it is also a time to listen, to recognize our own limitations and engage in dialogue that deepens our understanding. An understanding that leads to more thoughtful and effective action.

And that extends to those who work in the orbit of politics. For them, this month should provide a chance to consider the role policy development and government action plays in building a society that is more equitable, more inclusive and more just.

To that end, there are important opportunities to be taken to address the roots of anti-Black racism and create targeted supports for Black communities. One such example came this fall, when the Trudeau government established a $221-million loan program for Black entrepreneurs.

Targeted support for Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs has also been a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s approach to COVID recovery.

In a speech earlier this month to business executives, U.S. treasury secretary Janet Yellen commented on the disparities in economic outcomes for Black Americans.

“Economic crises,” Yellen said, “hit people of colour harder and longer.” An important objective of Biden’s relief plan, she went on, is “to make sure that this pandemic isn’t another generational setback for racial equality.”

Secretary Yellen is correct in her assessment. It is an assessment that extends to Canada too. Bolstering economic opportunity and expanding its reach, is an essential way to address the structures that underlie systemic racism and disadvantage Black communities.

At the same time, the issues exacerbated by the pandemic — access to housing, viable employment — preceded the pandemic and will continue once we return to some sense of normal.

And that is when the test will come. Will new policies effectively deal with the underlying structural issues which have existed for so long? Policy focused on anti-racism is, of course, crucial. But the answers are not simple. That’s because neither the issues we need to address nor the policy solutions that support them are one dimensional.

A prime example of this is the federal government’s revised Canada Child Benefit. The CCB was introduced in 2016 as a way to simplify spending on child benefits and to bolster federal support for low- and middle-income families.

By 2019, the policy was already lauded as being a tremendous success. It has contributed to a decline in child poverty from 11 per cent to nine per cent.

The CCB has, rightly, not been touted as an anti-racist policy. That’s because its target expands well beyond BIPOC communities. But in many ways, it is particularly impactful for improving equity and addressing barriers for Black and minority Canadians.

We know that child poverty, like so many aspects of our society, is a racialized issue. Research tells us that it disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous communities. In Canada, both groups are overrepresented in the child welfare system as a result of systemic insecurity when it comes to food, housing and other needs. The CCB helps to not only address the welfare of children but also helps lift families out of poverty.

When it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of programs like the CCB, consideration needs to be given to the extent these programs played a role in remedying some of the great challenges that face Black Canadians and other minority groups in our country.

So, as Black History Month comes to a close, let’s keep in mind that a lens of diversity, equity and inclusion is needed to evaluate all policy — even that which is not explicitly race-based. That in combating systemic racism, the tools we have should be as broad and as deep as the multitude of issues that contribute to systems of oppression and inequality.

And let’s also keep in mind that, as important as the month of February is, the work must carry on. Every month of the year.

Beverley McLachlin is a proven — and safe — choice for governor general

By the time you are reading this, it will have been 31 days since Julie Payette’s unprecedented resignation as governor general. And although Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner is acting as Administrator of the Government of Canada, the office remains vacant.

There was good reason for Payette’s resignation. She stood accused of fostering a hostile work environment with reported incidents ranging from the strange (accosting staff in the hallways to demand they name the planets of the solar system) to the frightening (allegations of physical shoves). Hardly viceregal conduct. And, it seems, that was just the start. There was also her refusal to do many of the basics of the job; a job which, contrary to the popular imagination, sits at the foundation of our constitution traditions.

And those constitutional traditions are not simply theoretical ones. With a minority Parliament which could fall at any time, the duties could very quickly become very real.

It is not difficult to imagine a scenario akin to 2008, when then governor general Michaëlle Jean faced thorny requests from former prime minister Stephen Harper to prorogue Parliament.

Imagine if Prime Minister Trudeau asks for an election, not because he has lost the confidence of the House, but because he wagers he could do well at the polls once vaccinations are back on track this spring.

Such a request would put Wagner in a difficult position — not only is he merely a caretaker, he also sits as head of a different branch of government altogether.

But, of course, choosing a successor is tricky business. Because the governor general is appointed by the Queen on the advice of her prime minister, the next governor general cannot be seen to simply be doing Trudeau’s bidding.

What’s more, even though time is of the essence, the failure to properly vet a candidate, as was spectacularly the case with Payette, cannot be repeated.

In short, we need a proven set of safe hands and we need those hands pronto.

Enter Beverley McLachlin. The former chief justice of the Supreme Court broke barriers and sat for a historic, 17-year term until she retired in 2017. She is a constitutional expert who also, in her time, served as administrator of Canada (the same position her successor, Wagner, holds now) when Adrienne Clarkson was hospitalized in 2005.

For a government obsessed with image, McLachlin also ticks many boxes. She is a highly accomplished woman, a Westerner (born in Pincher Creek, Alberta), fluently bilingual and a part-time novelist to boot.

In short, she is the very personification of safe hands.

The only real question is whether she wants to do the job — and I mean really do the job, not merely hold the office, as Payette barely even deigned to do.

I suspect she does. I believe McLachlin intuitively understands that she occupies a unique place in history. That she is, as the lawyers she knows so well would say, sui generis.

She is devoted to Canada. She has spent her life in its service. Her court always sought to give voice to average Canadians. She spoke frequently on matters such as access to justice, for example.

I’m betting that in addition to the constitutional duties, she would quickly warm to the role of the Queen’s representative in Canada and the chance to meet those Canadians whose lives she has spent a lifetime thinking — and caring — about.

Now some critics will point to her refusal to resign from a postretirement appointment to the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal when Hong Kong’s fabled independent judiciary (along with much else) was threatened by Beijing’s new security law, imposed despite well-publicized and widespread protests.

Some would say not resigning was a missed opportunity to make a statement. But then again, she may have shown judgment as befits a governor general in choosing instead to quietly serve out her term, which ends later this year.

As Queen Mary tells Queen Elizabeth II in “The Crown,” sometimes “to do nothing is the hardest job of all.” The job of the governor general is not nothing. It requires a very viceregal sensibility that Payette totally lacked, and McLachlin possesses in spades.

And explains why there should be a short list of one.

For reimagining societies — and businesses — we need the power of design

FOR MANY DECADES, there has been a clarion call for designers around the world to put their methods, design thinking, and strategic foresight, to use in addressing the biggest problems facing our societies. Designers have applied their skills to create products, services and systems that are environmentally sustainable, support economic participation at all levels of society, and are inclusive and respectful of different needs and cultures. Now, as we consider the profound inequities laid bare by COVID-19 and the world we want to build post-pandemic, there is a crucial role for design.

In every facet of our world, the current crisis has revealed these kinds of human needs, from the precarity facing too many of our neighbours to the undervalued contributions of our front-line workers.  In the world of business, organizations are addressing societal issues through a renewed focus on corporate purpose and a greater role in the challenges we all face.  It is time for the public and private sectors to put the power of design to work in addressing these issues with input from and collaboration with the communities that they serve.

“At its best, design focuses on the needs of users and engages them in the process of defining problems and testing solutions. Fundamentally, design is linked to purpose, as both are concerned with the motives for decision-making and its wider effects on communities and individuals.”

Design is the intentional, creative, and technical practice of translating human needs into practical solutions. It is also stakeholder driven and forward thinking, accounting not just for the needs and uses of today, but also those of the future. At its best, design focuses on the needs of users and engages them in the process of defining problems and testing solutions. Fundamentally, design is linked to purpose, as both are concerned with the motives for decision-making and its wider effects on communities and individuals.

For example, designers from Black, Indigenous and racialized communities are bringing their life experience and sensibilities to creating designs that are inclusive and meaningful to businesses, consumers and communities.  OCAD University undertook a Black cluster hire of five additional faculty in 2020 under the leadership of Dean Dori Tunstall, the world’s first Black female design dean, allowing it to more effectively teach and research inclusive design. The university has also built its Indigenous design capacity. During Black History Month this year, the prestigious College Art Association and the Advertising and Design Club of Canada are exploring the contributions and methods of Black designers.

We need not look very far to find examples of design “in action,” being used to address the issues of today. Recently, the leadership of the European Union has embraced the “New European Bauhaus movement,” which is focused on encouraging designers to use their craft in the interests of a more equal, resilient and sustainable Europe post-COVID. This movement intends to combine thoughtful design with sustainability, balance function with beauty, and bring together entrepreneurs and creators to address climate change through large-scale solutions in buildings, transportation and resource-efficient digital innovation.

There are other examples to which we may turn. Movements like the New Bauhaus borrow assumptions from Bruce Mau’s 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change, which emphasize generosity, social inclusion, and environmental awareness. Mau’s work underlines the transformative nature of conscientious design and its potential to improve quality of life and address major challenges.

Aside from these applications, there is no escaping the role that transforming our physical spaces will play in our COVID recovery. We simply cannot allow “business as usual” to dominate our response. “Business as usual” thinking has gotten us where we are today. It will take bold thinking to reconsider the way we prioritize the use of space and how we share it.

When it comes to corporate purpose, design can support organizations as they reorient themselves in a new world — first and foremost through the design thinking process and tool kit. Design thinking brings together a diverse set of stakeholders and sources to ideate solutions. Needs are identified, problems framed and solved. It supports creative brainstorming processes drawing from talent at all levels within an organization, at times from both within and outside, and ideally representing multidisciplinary knowledge and perspectives: exactly the inputs needed for meaningful consideration of purpose.

Using a set of techniques ranging from observation and data gathering, to sketching and brainstorming, participants identify issues and opportunities to create multiple strategies. They establish prototypes that can be tested, eliminated, or enhanced in a rapid process, gathering, and integrating feedback from stakeholders. The goal is one of continuous improvement in a context of constantly changing conditions. Inclusive design and generous design are integrated into the process to ensure needs and voices of diverse individuals and groups are addressed to define needs, questions, goals, and outcomes.

While these approaches clearly apply to technical innovation, they are equally viable to organizational innovation. Design thinking helps groups understand if they are asking the right questions for their context and problem. Design thinking encourages participants to exercise empathy, that is to imagine situations from different points of view. Design thinking can result in solutions that address economic disparities and inequity while opening up access to talent, and new markets.

What’s more, we’ve already seen design thinking employed across the private sector, to great effect. IBM has adopted Design Thinking in a dramatic reworking of its strategy as it pivoted towards service design and delivery of AI driven business systems, a shift that improved return on investments. The Mayo Clinic applies design thinking to understand how patients experience health care, examining the user experience in detail and then placing doctors and designers together to sound out their approach to care, prototype and then launch a revitalized patient-centric care journey.

As we consider the changes to our world and the role for the private sector in it, business and policy leaders must consider the applications of design and design thinking. These applications are made all the more important by COVID-19, when companies and entire sectors face the need for creative strategies that can both manage through the crisis and find opportunities for post-COVID innovation.  Design and its constituent tools can be used to stimulate creativity, innovation, and contextual awareness as our society and our businesses consider the future and their place within it.