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Savvy Canadian companies know the benefits of aiding in the refugee crisis

Michael Adams is founding president of the Environics group of companies. Bernice Cheung is vice-president of cultural markets at Environics Research Group.

Professor Khalid Koser, an international policy expert and editor of the Journal of Refugee Studies, recently made an argument at Ryerson University's Global Diversity Exchange annual lecture that might have surprised some members of his audience.

The private sector, Dr. Koser says, can make a unique contribution to helping societies face the current refugee crisis – a "crisis," by the way, that Dr. Koser says holds substantial opportunity along with its challenges.

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What does the private sector have to do with refugees? Isn't it government's job to decide how many people to accept, and which ones? Isn't it politicians who must discern how the public wants to balance humanitarianism with pragmatic concerns like settlement and security?

Certainly, these are the issues that have been at the forefront of Canada's public conversation in the lead-up to our federal election and in the months since.

But these concerns should not be the only things that come to mind when we think about refugees. Dr. Koser has argued elsewhere that because the private sector tends to see people through the lens of commerce – as sources of talent, ideas and consumer spending – it has a perspective distinct from the one we so often see in the news focused on political risks and responsibilities.

Indeed, a look at the behaviour of Canada's business community over the past several months suggests that businesses see plenty of reason to participate in the national effort to welcome refugees. Many firms, including Royal Bank of Canada, McKinsey Canada and architect/urban planner John van Nostrand and his colleagues, have made significant financial donations and/or developed in-house fundraising efforts.

Others, including law firms such as Goldblatt Partners LLP and Torys LLP, have formed staff networks to privately sponsor refugees. Some firms, such as Danby Products Ltd., have made concrete offers of employment to incoming refugees.

Businesses whose lines of work are relevant to refugees' immediate needs have also found ways to help. Wind Mobile has donated phones. Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Bank of Nova Scotia have developed new refugee-specific banking services. IKEA has offered home products for newly arrived Syrian families (disbursed through registered charities).

Plenty of opportunities remain for businesses to help out, both directly and by easing the way for citizen-led efforts. Most Canadians who are aiding in their country's response to the Syrian refugee crisis are doing it out of humanitarian feeling. Businesses (which are run by people, after all) may in many cases be driven by similar feeling. But as smart businesses know, doing good and doing well often go hand in hand.

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At the most obvious level, companies that are seen as good corporate citizens at this time of national co-operation will enjoy reputational benefits. Our values research shows that consumers increasingly expect businesses to exercise corporate social responsibility and large segments say their spending choices are informed by companies' good (or poor) behaviour.

In addition to pitching in to help vulnerable people, however, the message businesses have an opportunity to send is that they understand Canada and how Canada intersects with the wider world.

Environics' Cultural Markets practice counsels that businesses at the leading edge of marketing to immigrants in Canada are not just marketing to immigrants: They are marketing to an entire society that actively identifies as diverse, multicultural and globalized. A grocery store that has smart offerings for young Chinese and South Asian families is also well positioned to appeal to non-Asian urbanites for whom ramen, roti, banh mi and bubble tea are all part of daily life. The line between "from here" and "from somewhere else" is becoming meaningless. Demonstrating savvy in Canada means demonstrating global awareness and engagement.

Similarly, the gap between "helper" and "helped" is by no means fixed, with today's helped more often than not becoming tomorrow's helper. The media have featured many stories of Vietnamese refugees who came to Canada decades ago as vulnerable people, and who are now well established and reaching out to Syrian refugees from positions of prosperity and stability.

There is no question that refugees arriving now have had terrifying experiences and have a long road ahead. But they and their children will settle and become part of the fabric of Canada. It is not hard to imagine that in times of greater ease and comfort, they and their allies will remember those who helped.

Although the Syrian refugee crisis has unlocked a surge of heartfelt activity in Canada, most Canadians know that these 25,000 people are just a handful of those who could benefit from society's attention and support. There are refugees from other troubled places; ordinary newcomers who arrive at our airports every day, ungreeted by politicians and camera crews; struggling people already living in Canada.

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As their country approaches its 150th birthday, Canadians seem to be in a mood to live up to their highest ideals about what Canada can be. They certainly expect their governments to be involved in that project. But businesses that find smart ways to contribute to important national efforts and conversations will likely find themselves rewarded, too.

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