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The B.C. government is under fire for announcing a $12-million program to help businesses market their products online despite an inability to get hundreds of millions of dollars in business aid out the door during the pandemic.

As Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon announced the new e-commerce program Wednesday, he faced questions about the much-larger Small and Medium Sized Business Recovery Grant. Only $12-million of $345-million has been allocated from that program, which was launched in October and is scheduled to expire in March.

Mr. Kahlon told a news conference that the NDP government is considering options to deal with the situation. He noted that there were a thousand applications in the first three months of the program, then 4,000 applications since December after efforts to make the program more flexible.

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He said that more than 60 per cent of the applications this month are from tourism operators, and he has been responsive to their suggestions for changes to the program.

“We’re going to continue to monitor that for the coming weeks and then make decisions accordingly,” Mr. Kahlon said. “There’s a lag between when the applications come in and the dollars go out. I have been watching the amount of applications pick up, and I am happy to see that.”

The Launch Online Grant program central to Wednesday’s media event in Victoria is intended to help more than 1,500 eligible small and medium-sized businesses pivot to market their products online.

But Liberal jobs critic Todd Stone said he was taken aback that the minister showed up to talk about e-commerce instead of announcing major fixes for the larger, problematic grant program.

He said the minister had announced “this shiny, flashy object” of the $12-million grant program for e-commerce though the issue isn’t top priority for most businesses. “There’s such a disconnect here,” Mr. Stone said. “There was a huge lost opportunity.”

“What I am hearing from businesses is ‘We need to be able to tap into that recovery funding so we can keep our lights on.’ ”

Adam Olsen, a Green Party member of the legislature, said the announcement did not address the larger issue.

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“We welcome the tools to help small and medium-sized businesses get online but it doesn’t make up for the fact that the government’s centre-piece Small and Medium Sized Business Recovery Grant program has fallen short and money is not getting out the door to those in need,” Mr. Olsen said in a statement.

“Today’s announcement does not address the ongoing significant flaws with business supports such as the need for tools for larger local businesses like interest free loans.”

Muriel Protzer, a senior B.C. analyst for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said businesses will benefit from the e-commerce program. Of the recovery grant program, she said, “It does seem grossly underutilized.”

“With the grant program, vetting the applications is a process that takes time. That being said, the program was announced in October. It’s now January, and we do need the money to get out the door,” she said. “From CFIB’s own estimates, less than a third of small businesses in British Columbia are making normal revenues for this time of year so it’s very integral that we streamline that process and speed that up to get money into the hands of small businesses who do need it right now.”

Bridgitte Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, said the online-support program is welcome news for providing help to small businesses that haven’t been able to pivot to e-commerce.

“This will certainly help those businesses, and help support jobs … But let’s not kid ourselves. It is still a very challenging time for businesses.”

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