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GRANT FROST: #BellLetsTalk — corporate altruism or necessary evil?


Volunteer Natalia Kvittka, sends a text message as some of the 1072 texters prepare to take part in the Bell Let's Talk Day at the Metro Center in 2013. - Tim Krochak
Volunteer Natalia Kvittka sends a text message as more than 1,000 others prepare to take part in the Bell Let's Talk Day at the Halifax Metro Centre in 2013. - Tim Krochak

Last Thursday marked the 11th anniversary of Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” day. The campaign, which is promoted as a way to get people talking about mental health issues, sees the corporate behemoth donating money to health organizations for every social media mention that uses the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. As of the latest numbers, the promotion has seen well over $100 million donated to mental health groups across Canada, including those that support children and youth, Indigenous communities and military families.

The initiative has not been without its critics. There is no small number of pundits out there who see this as a particularly onerous example of corporate Canada benefiting from the suffering of others. 

In 2017, a CBC report  blew the whistle on Bell, suggesting that many of Bell’s own employees were suffering from major stress and anxiety due to what were referred to as “high pressure” sales tactics. These particular allegations were strenuously denied by the company. It should be noted as well that in a 2019 report, Bell was lauded by researchers at Deloitte Canada as having an exemplary record as far as worker mental wellness was concerned.

However, this is not the only criticism lobbed into Bell’s lap. Last year, criminal defence lawyer Michael Spratt went public with his views on how Bell was profiting off prison inmates. The company holds exclusive rights to the phone systems in Ontario jails, and charges what critics see as exorbitant user fees. According to Spratt, this inhibits the ability of inmates to speak with family members or receive counselling, neither of which is particularly conducive to improving mental wellness. This seems particularly onerous, considering struggles with mental health issues were probably a key factor for why many of those self same individuals wound up behind bars in the first place.

One of the most damning critiques of the initiative recently came from a grad student in the University of Windsor’s communications, media and film department which caught the attention of the National Post in 2019. In that case, the author, Jasmine Vido, argued (quite successfully, I thought) that the whole thing was more about market branding than altruism. The paper pointed out that the use of the company’s name in the associated hashtag allows for Bell to gather millions of media mentions for a nickel a piece. Vido further contends that if Bell truly was looking to focus on mental wellness as opposed to company branding, dropping the company name in favour of a more simplified “#Letstalk” and inviting other corporate media giants like Rogers and Telus to the party would go a long way to quieting the critics.

A decade ago, for better or worse, Bell stepped into a vacuum. Prior to “Let’s Talk,” there was little discussion about the general mental wellness of Canadians. 

I suppose some folks may see this as a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum. That Bell is making money and engaging in shameless self-promotion on the backs of some of Canada’s most vulnerable citizens is an impossible position to defend. The other, much shinier side of the coin is that it would be hard to argue the campaign hasn’t done at least some good. Mental health awareness in Canada has certainly experienced a major mainstreaming, thanks in part to “Let’s Talk.”

A decade ago, for better or worse, Bell stepped into a vacuum. Prior to “Let’s Talk,” there was little discussion about the general mental wellness of Canadians. 

As someone who has spent a great deal of his professional and personal time over the past few years focusing on the mental wellness of teachers, I have certainly seen a shift. Recently, the Canadian Teachers Federation published a spot-on Pandemic Research Report with recommendations on how to help teachers and students navigate the mental health issues that are so pervasive right now.  A group that I am more closely associated with, the EdCan Network, has made teacher mental wellness a primary focus of its work for the past few years. It would be hard to argue that the collective comfort necessary to move these conversations forward is much more common now than it was 10 years ago.

Regardless of some of Bell’s arguably questionable corporate shenanigans, until another entity of equal magnitude steps up, we may have to shelve our indignation for the time being, and hope the ends do indeed justify the means.

It is in that “stepping up” where the solution to this moral quandary lies, of course. We have certainly heard enough about corporate tax loopholes and exorbitant CEO salaries.  Perhaps having a five-cent-per-interaction-once-per-year tax on all major carriers in our nation, forcing them to donate a nickel to mental wellness initiatives anytime one of their customers used “CanadaLetsTalk”  as a hashtag, might be a nice first step.

If that were the case, I’m not certain you would get me off my phone at all on that particular day.

Grant Frost is an educational commentator who has been teaching for 25 years. More of his commentary can be found at frostededucation.com.

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