$20M federal relief package 'just the start' of what's needed to aid merchants hit by protests, biz group says

Freedom Convoy trucks
Protests against vaccine mandates that closed downtown streets for weeks have dealt a severe economic blow to many local merchants, business advocates say. File photo

The head of a group that represents thousands of mainstreet Ottawa businesses says the $20 million in federal aid for downtown merchants who lost sales during three weeks of protests against vaccine mandates should be “just the start” of a more comprehensive relief package.  

Under the initiative announced last weekend, small businesses in the core will be able to apply for up to $10,000 to cover non-deferrable operational costs not covered by other federal programs. 

Invest Ottawa will be in charge of disbursing the grants, which are being funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. Other local business organizations such as the Ottawa Board of Trade and the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas will help run the program.

OCOBIA executive director Michelle Groulx said Tuesday that while the cash will come as welcome relief to hard-hit downtown businesses, it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the extensive losses many of them have sustained over the past month.

“It is understood by many of us that the expenses that (businesses) have incurred have been in some cases significantly higher than that,” Groulx told OBJ, adding the program is being designed as a “quick and easy way” to help merchants recoup lost sales.

Invest Ottawa vice-president of marketing and communications Sonya Shorey said the non-profit organization is still working with federal officials to iron out the details of the program.

IO to provide updates

She said the application process will be launched “in the coming weeks,” adding businesses will be invited to register to receive updates on Invest Ottawa’s homepage in the next few days.

“We will notify all subscribers when the application process is launched, and promote this program broadly to maximize uptake and impact on eligible companies,” Shorey said in an email to OBJ on Tuesday afternoon.

Groulx said the protests dealt yet another blow to mainstreet retailers that were already reeling from another round of shutdowns and other measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. 

Her organization’s survey of more than 200 merchants a few days into the demonstrations found that three-quarters of them had lost revenues, with just over half of those businesses saying they would not be able to recover their losses.

"There’s a lot of catchup to do. This is just the start."

“There’s a lot of catchup to do,” Groulx said. “We’re hoping that (the federal grant program) is a step in the right direction. This is just the start.”

Groulx called on all three levels of government to step up and support affected merchants. She said she’s heartened to see that city council is bringing forward a package of potential relief measures at Wednesday’s meeting that includes a targeted property tax deferral program for retailers and restaurants in the protest zone, funding to help BIAs in affected areas market their neighbourhoods, free parking for a month in the affected zones and an expansion of free transit service to include all routes that bring customers to and from the affected regions.

“I’m happy to see that council is acknowledging that things need to be done and that there’s an investment that needs to be made into the downtown core,” Groulx said.

Still, she said many landlords and merchants are hoping to see more robust measures such as property tax cuts or rebates as well as an extension of grants and other relief programs.

“This is definitely an all-hands-on-deck need for urgent funds and any kind of support,” Groulx said. “We’re looking for it all.”