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opinion

Jay Vallis, owner of Piatto Pizzeria + Enoteca, demonstrates how their pizza is made at their Guelph location on April 13, 2021.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Brian Vallis is the owner of Piatto Pizzeria + Enoteca, a pizzeria chain based in St. John’s with locations in Atlantic Canada and Southern Ontario

It’s hard to exaggerate the widespread, debilitating suffering Canadians have endured over the past year. Families have lost loved ones. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. Small-business owners have lost their companies and life savings. And it isn’t over yet.

As many parts of the country struggle through a third wave, restrictions have become harsher, financial losses greater and signs of recovery are sparse.

Our elected leaders have done what they thought best for our safety and well-being, providing much-needed financial relief for individuals and businesses alike. This support has been a lifeline for many, but certainly not for all.

One important group has fallen through the cracks – a group that is critical to the country’s economic recovery and a return to higher employment and vibrancy in our downtown cores and neighbourhoods.

These are the entrepreneurs who risked their capital and started businesses during the pandemic – many not by choice but by circumstance, as they were well into building a new venture when the pandemic hit and had a financial imperative to complete the project and open their doors.

Canada’s newest entrepreneurs rented and renovated previously empty retail spaces, hired and trained people and contributed to their neighbourhoods. In many cases they had strong support from the community and good sales until the second wave of lockdowns hit. Like the vast majority of Canadian businesses, they wanted to help flatten the curve, and therefore abided by all the regulations and restrictions to their operations just like everyone else.

However, without any “previous year” sales (based on pre-COVID sales commencing April, 2019), they did not qualify for government assistance, primarily the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy. They were between a rock and a hard place. By complying with lockdown orders, they had no way to survive.

As businesses collectively moved through various stages of pandemic restrictions, nobody knew what lay ahead. Most returned to work in a reduced capacity. Some closed permanently. Others borrowed where they could and worked an inordinate number of unpaid hours just to stay afloat. Many pivoted, hatching new plans and new revenue streams to survive. They continued to contribute to Canada’s economy, creating jobs and delivering products and services that Canadians want and need.

However, not qualifying for government assistance means Canada’s newest entrepreneurs bore the full brunt of the business interruption with no help in the form of wage or rent subsidies. With each new lockdown, more permanent closings happened, and more businesses moved closer to the verge of collapse.

Prior to the pandemic, small to medium-sized enterprises represented close to 65 per cent of national payrolls. If this category of employer – the backbone of our economy – is allowed to atrophy because of unequal government policies, the recovery will stall, and even more problems will emerge.

Those in the restaurant and hospitality sectors, especially, are often the first employers for many people in this country. They are critical for the workers whose socio-economic status often leaves them without the means to afford an education that might allow them to compete in more competitive job markets. For many, their education is on-the-job training, where they acquire practical skills and ultimately develop rewarding careers. The lack of government support for small businesses is a direct impediment to those in greatest need of job opportunities.

If these businesses are not supported, and the associated jobs are not made available to those who need them, social problems – addictions, untreated mental illness and crime – are a reliable consequence that puts a strain on our social and medical systems.

And when businesses close, the buildings that housed them often remain vacant for extended periods, serving as a blight on our neighbourhoods. This becomes all the more obvious the longer the buildings are left unattended, becoming worn and sometimes vandalized because of their lack of care. When this happens in the downtown core, the vibrancy that many municipalities worked on for years is diminished and communities experience decline at a time when we need growth.

If, as the vaccine rollout begins to take effect, we want our communities to recover from this crisis with as much gusto as possible and we want to continue to grow and prosper, these inequities must be addressed. These new entrepreneurs want to be part of the recovery. They represent the spirit and initiative this country needs to recover, but they need support if they are going to survive, and they need it now.

If the government is truly serious about building this country back better than it was before, if it cares about the vitality and safety of our towns and cities, and if it wants to do what’s best for those among us who struggle the most, it will rectify its unbalanced treatment of small businesses and expand their assistance programs to include our newest entrepreneurs who started their businesses during the pandemic. Supporting them with the CEWS and CERS will surely aid in Canada’s recovery.

In doing so, it will take an important step to recovery and to getting Canadians back to the Canada they know and love.

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