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Federal Minister of Small Business, Rechie Valdez outside her office in Mississauga on Aug. 18.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

In early 2020, Rechie Valdez made a decision. She would leave the banking industry, where she had worked for more than 15 years, to focus full time on her small business: baking desserts and wedding cakes.

“I freaked out my mother,” Ms. Valdez said. “I was able to let go of the corporate life, the job security and everything. I really wanted to believe in me and everything I built. It was very daunting and very scary. For most entrepreneurs, it is.”

A year and a half later, she made another leap of faith and put her name on a ballot. She was elected. And this summer, the rookie MP was named to cabinet as the Minister of Small Business, the federal Liberals’ first dedicated minister in that portfolio in four years.

Ms. Valdez sat down with The Globe and Mail at a bakery in Mississauga, near her constituency office. (She closed her own bake shop when she got into politics.)

She steps into her cabinet role at a critical time. Small businesses in many sectors struggled to survive pandemic lockdowns. The taps of federal aid were turned off last year, but a crucial deadline looms to pay back government pandemic loans.

In the coming weeks, Ms. Valdez will help decide whether to extend the deadline. And beyond that, she will shepherd programs that have struggled to get uptake – such as a $4-billion initiative to help small businesses upgrade their digital tools.

Ms. Valdez is the first Filipina cabinet minister, though her family’s journey to Canada was not direct. She was born in 1980 in Zambia to parents who were both born in the Philippines.

In 1989, the family – now including a younger brother – immigrated to Canada. Her father (an engineer) found a job quickly, but her mother (a nurse) couldn’t get her credentials recognized and had to go back to school while working.

“I watched them work so hard,” Ms. Valdez said. “They gave up everything and they sacrificed everything. But you know what, because they did, we got our education here, in this country.”

Ms. Valdez graduated from the University of Windsor in 2003 with a degree in computer science. She was hired by Bank of Montreal to work the phones in the customer-service department, before eventually moving up to other roles. She would stay at the bank for more than 15 years.

Lisa Pires, a former head of small business experience at BMO, managed Ms. Valdez while the latter was in charge of a data analytics unit on the sales team. Ms. Pires said that upon first moving to the sales department, she was impressed with Ms. Valdez’s detailed briefing on how it operated.

“Some politicians are very ‘politicians,’ I’ll say,” Ms. Pires said. “But I think she’s got the business acumen as well, which is going to serve her well.”

On the side, Ms. Valdez began to bake. The turning point was making a cake for her second child’s first birthday. She enjoyed it so much she sought out customers for whom she could bake an assortment of confections, from macarons to wedding cakes.

It was a busy time. “I worked 9 to 5, put the kids to bed, then went to the commercial kitchen to bake everything” late into the night, she said. “And then in between grocery shopping with my family on the weekends, we would deliver all the cakes to customers.”

Her family includes husband, Christopher; son, now 14; and daughter, 8.

In February, 2020, just before the pandemic began, Ms. Valdez came to the decision to leave banking for baking. “I had built a strong enough customer base and there was enough flow coming in that if I put my energy into this full time, then imagine the possibilities,” she said.

She also branched out into media, producing a show called Fearlessly Creative on the specialty channel Filipino TV and appearing as a contestant on Season 2 of the Food Network’s The Big Bake. (Her team, “Bake to the Future,” made a ginger-chai cake with nutmeg buttercream, designed to resemble a tea party on a tropical island. The judges praised the look of the cake but gave another team the win.)

Throughout her time as an entrepreneur, Ms. Valdez says, she was energized by the sense of community she felt with other small-business owners. She decided the next step to getting more involved with local issues was politics. In August of 2021, she was acclaimed as the Liberal candidate for Mississauga-Streetsville and won a seat in the federal election the following month.

Once in Ottawa, she got used to life as an MP and sat on House committees on veterans and on agriculture. Then in July of this year, she got the call from the Prime Minister’s Office that she was invited to join cabinet as part of a major shakeup of Justin Trudeau’s front bench.

At the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall, Ms. Valdez stood out for her emotional reciting of the oath of office. “I was trying to hold back my tears and I couldn’t because it is a very powerful moment,” she told reporters after.

For the past five years, the small-business portfolio had been held by Mary Ng, who for most of that time was also minister of international trade. Before Ms. Ng, the small-business portfolio was held for three years by Bardish Chagger, who was also the Liberals’ House leader.

Ms. Valdez said having a minister whose attention is not divided between jobs will help the government keep a close eye on how small businesses are recovering from the pandemic. “I’m glad there’s a focus now,” she said.

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said having a dedicated minister may give the portfolio more profile in cabinet, but added that Ms. Valdez will need the help of ministers in finance and industry to get things done.

“It can really depend on the individual minister and how much influence they have or can gain with their colleagues in larger ministries,” Mr. Kelly said.

Top of the list of her priorities, Ms. Valdez said, is the decision on what to do about the upcoming repayment deadline for the Canada Emergency Business Account.

Ottawa should collect CEBA loans from those who can repay, and help those who can’t

CEBA was the first pandemic support for businesses – and the most widely used – extending loans of $40,000 or $60,000 to nearly 900,000 businesses. The loans are interest-free and partially forgiven if repaid by Dec. 31. After that, interest accrues at a 5-per-cent annual rate and the full amounts are due by Dec. 31, 2025. Ottawa advanced a total of $49-billion in CEBA loans.

Business groups have spent months pressing the government to extend the repayment deadline, arguing that many small businesses are still struggling with debt taken on during the pandemic. More than 250 groups signed a letter in July asking for a two-year extension. Ottawa has already extended the deadline once.

Ms. Valdez said she began speaking to everyone she could about CEBA as soon as she was sworn in. She said financial institutions – which help administer CEBA for a small fee – have told her they are supportive of whatever the government does, but “they’re just anxious for us to be able to announce whatever it is that we’re going to announce.”

She said she hopes to have something to unveil soon, which would have to be done with Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.

“What I’ve been hearing is the sooner the better,” Ms. Valdez said.

Another thing she hopes to focus on is the $4-billion Canada Digital Adoption Program, which provides grants and loans to small businesses to upgrade their technology.

The Globe reported in May that the program, which the government intended as a major centrepiece of its small-business strategy, had seen little uptake so far. Only about 3 per cent of its budget had been spent in its first year, and some businesses said the grants were helpful but complicated to get.

Ms. Valdez said she wants to help far more businesses access the program by advertising it better and reaching entrepreneurs through grassroots networks. “I have some ideas,” she said. “But a lot of it is from a communications perspective.”

Ultimately, she said, she’s just excited to get started. “I can’t even tell you. I really want to make a difference.”

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