Get back to work: Struggling business community demands more action from federal government

“I do feel that I am the captain of the Titanic right now,” says Brendan Ladner, owner of restaurant chain SMAK Healthy Fast Food. “How many months can we bleed money? Who’s got pockets to bleed thousands of dollars? I’ve got a family.”

Of course, the small business owner is talking about surviving the pandemic. Ladner’s business model relies on downtown foot traffic, which has not fully recovered since March 2020.

“There’s been no growth,” according to Ladner. “We had a bump in July and August, September’s been slower than those months because there are no tourists and still there’s nobody on the streets. There used to be 10,000 people a day walking by this location and right now there's hardly anybody."

This week, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce called on the newly re-elected Liberal minority government to get back to work as soon as possible and give Canadians a pandemic playbook to an economic recovery.

According to the Chamber, businesses and the millions of Canadians they employ need immediate action on two critical issues: safely managing the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and implementing a strategy to restore economic growth. It says the next parliament needs to prioritize helping businesses of all sizes, including extending the wage and rent subsidy programs to ensure support for the hardest-hit sectors.

“It’s a daunting time,” says Ladner. "We're all hopeful that things are going to turn around but I'm building my forecast in a real world, where I'm thinking how can I get through December? We’re going to have to turn basically to our landlords and beg them for compassion.”

According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, three quarters (76 per cent) of small businesses that took on debt say that it will take more than a year to repay. That number jumps to 87 per cent for businesses in the hospitality sector, with a majority of them saying it will take longer than two years, and nearly a quarter expressing concern about being able to pay off their debt at all.

In total, the CFIB estimates that small businesses in Canada now owe a collective $139 billion due to COVID-19, up from the estimated $135 billion in February of this year.

“The biggest concern is the uncertainty,” says John Nicholson, from the Listel Hospitality Group. “We just don’t know, it’s complete uncertainty for the hotels and also complete uncertainty for the restaurants.”

According to Nicholson, the Listel Hotel in downtown Vancouver is not back to its economic output from 2019, but management has been able to stem the losses. Typically, the hotel can plan several years in advance, but he says at this point they’re not even sure what’s happening two months ahead.

“We're not losing as much money as we were before and that's a positive thing, but for some businesses, I don't know how they're hanging on," says Nicholson.