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Commitment from leadership on diversity and inclusion is key to meaningful change: a Q&A with Inter Pipeline Ltd.’s Anita Dusevic Oliva

19.05.21

At BD&P, we understand the value of learning from one another. Having a workforce of people with different backgrounds and experiences encourages new ideas and diversity of thought, which, in turn, means we can offer more innovative legal guidance to our clients.

One of the companies leading the way in the equity, diversity and inclusion space is Inter Pipeline Ltd. (IPL), a Calgary based energy infrastructure company and a BD&P client. Anita Dusevic Oliva is the Senior Vice President of Corporate Services at IPL.

We recently spoke with Anita to learn about Inter Pipeline’s approach to diversity and inclusion.

Tell us a little bit about what diversity and inclusion means to you and IPL.

Diversity and Inclusion is very important to Inter Pipeline and we are proud of the strides we have made in 2020 and 2021 in response to Black Lives Matter and the focus on inequities in Canada in relation to Indigenous Peoples. We recently reiterated our commitments in relation to Diversity and Inclusion as follows: “Inter Pipeline is committed to building and maintaining a psychologically safe workplace for all employees regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, family status, religion or any other dimension of diversity.” These are just words on a page without actions supporting them. At Inter Pipeline, these words mean something to us because of the practical and actionable plans we have in place, including a strong Indigenous Affairs policy and program, with a focus on education provided by Indigenous community leaders; an employee-driven Council for Diversity & Inclusion established in 2020 and our Women’s Network established in 2019; a mandatory unconscious bias training program that all employees will complete by the end of 2021; and a demographic assessment of the workforce which is currently in progress and a plan to set aspirational targets to increase diversity in the workforce in the future. In addition, we are very proud of our CEO’s commitment to the BlackNorth Initiative, as well as two entrance scholarships we created in early 2021 for Black and Indigenous University of Calgary law students in addition to a related internship program at IPL.

We heard about the reverse mentoring program you championed as part of Indigenous History Month, can you tell us about that?

Absolutely. My experience with reverse mentoring is definitely one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in my career, and really, in my life. To be frank, I was not well-educated on Indigenous history in Canada, despite having attended law school and having been educated in the public school system in Alberta in the 1980s and 1990s. I became better educated through our Indigenous awareness and history training at Inter Pipeline in recent years, but it was my experience of meeting an Indigenous law student and asking her to better educate me through reverse mentoring that I began to understand my role as a corporate leader in contributing to improved Indigenous representation, opportunities and experiences in the corporate world. The background behind how this came about ties into Indigenous History Month. Our Indigenous Relations team asked me to write a piece concluding our month of recognizing National Indigenous History Month last June. My first response was that I didn’t think I would be the right person to do this. Over the weeks leading up to that time, I had been doing a lot of thinking about anti-racism and discrimination, and the state of the world. I had been reflecting on what I had and hadn’t done to contribute to where we are at as a society as both an individual and a corporate leader. To be frank, I didn’t even know where to start. I recognized that I had a lot of learning to do before I have anything worthwhile to say.

So, I turned to Amelia Harman, one of our Inter Pipeline law students. I needed a teacher and Amelia was up for the challenge. Amelia is an extraordinary young leader. She is a member of the executive team for the Indigenous Law Club and the Indigenous Students’ Council at the University of Calgary, and has been awarded the Hersh E. Wolch, Q.C. Memorial Award for Indigenous Law Students. In addition to pursuing her law degree, she is simultaneously completing a master's degree in public policy. At the same time she is pursuing two graduate degrees, Amelia continues to volunteer in the community, supporting young Indigenous People in Calgary through a number of organizations. She is originally from the Northwest Territories and brings her unique Northern background and perspective. As a proud Metis individual, Amelia is a role model, not just for Indigenous Peoples but for others, myself included.

Amelia and I started our “reverse” mentoring program last June with the objective of Amelia teaching me what I should know as a leader to effectively support Diversity and Inclusion, specifically from the perspective of Indigenous People, but also in broader terms. Our reverse mentoring continues to this day. Every time I meet with Amelia, I learn more, and I also feel more positive about the future of the legal profession knowing that Amelia and others like her joining the legal practice will be more empowered to make positive changes in our profession.

And what was the number one thing you learned from Amelia about how business leaders can effectively support diversity and inclusion?

I think the best answer to this is to quote Amelia’s words to me….

“From a leadership and organizational perspective, the most important thing is to take meaningful action. It is important for leaders to consider and address the impact and potential existence of racism and discrimination within their organization. Racism is woven into all aspects of society. It is important to acknowledge that racism and discrimination is perpetuated throughout institutions in Canada, including corporations; workplaces are not immune. Racism and discrimination in the workplace manifests in the form of behaviors that create barriers to equal opportunity. It can manifest by way of introducing biases into decision-making processes regarding the hiring, compensation, promotion, or work assignment of employees. It can also manifest in the form of limiting the inclusion and participation of individuals in work-related social interactions.

Leaders set the tone for their organization and pave the way for cultural reformation within it. It is the leadership team’s responsibility to convey care and genuine concern for all employees, including marginalized employees. To actively tackle racism and discrimination, leaders must educate themselves on the history, manifestations, and consequences of racism. Starting a productive conversation about race within the organization is the next step. These conversations must acknowledge what has happened in history and address what is happening now. Discussions should also acknowledge the diverse array of backgrounds in Canada and focus on appreciating the value of different perspectives. Empowering employees to share their experiences and providing a safe space for them during these conversations is imperative. I am impressed by IPL’s meaningful efforts to engage in this work.

Leadership requires adaptation. It is important for leaders to take a proactive stance on their commitment to diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism within their organization. Although employees appreciate words of understanding and reassurance, the actions of leaders and the organization hold greater value. A genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion is not just a “check the box” exercise; it requires on-going efforts. Leaders need to consider what specific actions they will take to promote equity, and to address harms associated with racism and discrimination in their organization. They must also be accountable to those commitments.

Companies can take various actions, such as incorporating anti-racism, unconscious bias, and Indigenous awareness training into employee education practices. I am impressed by IPL’s commitment to Indigenous awareness training that was initiated in 2019, and to introducing mandatory unconscious bias training for all employees. Companies can also provide anti-racism resources to employees, as well as information on how to recognize and respond to racism and discrimination in the workplace. They can also consider donating to or being involved in community-based anti-racism efforts. Another important step that companies can take is to conduct internal research to identify potential or existing biases within their organization, and subsequently work to address those biases. This could include conducting a review of existing hiring and recruitment practices and policies, compensation, promotions, work assignments, or performance evaluations. Policies and programs that work to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion, and that address anti-racism should also be adopted and be strictly adhered to. Leaders must ensure and reinforce that anti-racism is a part of the culture and that racism will not be tolerated.

The work that IPL has been doing in the equity, diversity, and inclusion space is noteworthy and its initiatives have been very impactful. It is inspiring, and it makes me very hopeful about the future.”

How do you think diversity and inclusion ties into an organization's business objectives?

Without diversity of thought, we will not be successful in these changing times. It is absolutely critical to learn and understand different perspectives to move our organizations forward, particularly when we are working through challenges. I also think it’s incredibly boring to work in teams without different perspectives and thoughts. I learn the most from the most diverse groups I work with because they end up being more creative, engaged, and open-minded. In order to be creative as a team, we need to share new ideas and perspectives. When we’ve had different life experiences and challenges, we bring different perspectives to a team which can only result in more creativity, better decision making and a more positive, exciting and successful experience in our organizations.