'We'll get through this': McKenna urges Ottawans to support local businesses during pandemic

Catherine McKenna
Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna was the guest at Tuesday morning's virtual Mayor's Breakfast event. Photo courtesy Catherine McKenna

Ottawa’s top federal politician praised residents for sticking together during the pandemic and urged them to keep supporting local businesses that are struggling in the face of strict measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus during an appearance at the first-ever virtual Mayor’s Breakfast event on Tuesday morning.

On the same day her boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, warned Canadians to brace for a “tough winter ahead,” Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna tried to reassure the audience watching online and on community cable TV.

“We have your back,” she said. “We’ll get through this.” 

McKenna, the federal minister of infrastructure and communities, had to pause to collect her thoughts before describing some of the phone calls her office has received from entrepreneurs wondering how their businesses will survive. 

“People call us crying,” she told broadcaster Mark Sutcliffe during a Q&A in an almost empty Ottawa City Hall council chamber. “That’s really hard. You’re like, ‘What can we do?’ We can’t solve everything.” 

"People call us crying. You’re like, ‘What can we do?’ We can’t solve everything."

McKenna noted the generosity of the Ottawa business community, giving the example of restaurants that are contributing to food banks despite barely making ends meet themselves.

“We all just have to wake up every morning and figure out how we’re going to get through the day,” she said. “It’s hard, but we’ll get through this. I believe in our community, and I think that people have really shown how they will step up.

“I think that’s what we have to remember: the most important thing, honestly, that we have is community spirit.”

The federal cabinet minister reminded consumers their actions can go a long way toward helping retail mainstreets make it through the crisis.

“There are consequences of decisions,” she said. “If you are getting a paycheque every week … figure out how (to) support people. Think about buying locally.”

The Mayor’s Breakfast is a regular event hosted by OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade. Tuesday’s edition was the first since large public gatherings were banned in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, and in contrast to the hundreds of people that typically attend, only a handful of masked, physically distanced spectators were present for McKenna’s appearance.

'Sector-specific' approach

The local politician acknowledged that not everything in the federal government’s suite of aid packages to businesses has worked out as well as planned. She pointed to the much-maligned rent-relief scheme that relied on landlords to apply for help on tenants’ behalf and has since been revamped.

“We didn't have the tools to force landlords to take up the program,” McKenna said. “I certainly hope (the new program) works better.”

She also told Sutcliffe she favours a more “sector-specific” aid to businesses that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic such as bars and restaurants over a one-size-fits-all approach.

“I think that you have to look at every industry and sector differently,” McKenna said. 

McKenna defended continued federal spending on aid programs, arguing the long-term cost to Canada’s economy of seeing more widespread business failures would be far greater than the money being spent on programs such as rent relief.

“We need ... to make the investments we need to keep the economy going,” she said. “After that, of course we need to readjust. The good news is Canada is in a very good fiscal situation.”

McKenna also said she’s pushing to make sure public transit and green buildings are at the top of the agenda when it comes to infrastructure spending in the National Capital Region.

Asked about a plan for a rail loop connecting the downtown cores of Ottawa and Gatineau that’s been touted by a new group called Supporters of the Loop, the local MP said the concept intrigues her.

“I think transit is key to vibrant, amazing cities and we can have a vision around that,” she said.  

“I like ambition. I think it’s a really interesting idea.”