The economic impact of COVID-19 is top of mind for many Canadians, but arguably few more so than Mary Ng, who serves as the federal Minister for Small Business, Export Promotion, and International Trade.
The crisis, which has had a staggering effect on small business, is personal to Minister Ng, who grew up working in her parent’s small restaurant in the Greater Toronto Area.
We called Minister Ng on Friday, April 24th, to discuss how the federal government is acting to mitigate the effect of the virus on Canadian business owners, and how the crisis has impacted her mandate to double the number of women entrepreneurs in Canada.
Btchcoin: Your day to day as Minister must have changed a lot since the onset of COVID-19. How have your priorities changed?
Mary Ng: Like many Canadians, COVID-19 has changed a lot of things for me, but I’m fortunate to be able to work from home. I sit on the COVID-19 Cabinet Committee, which is chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister (Chrystia Freeland), and participate here from my home office, and also do Cabinet from here by secure line.
I even did a video conference with the G20 trade ministers from here a few weeks ago. And of course I’ve been doing a lot of media interviews so that we can reach as many Canadians out there and share what we’re doing for Canadian businesses.
BC: Small businesses are obviously taking a huge hit during this crisis, and while we’ve seen a lot of social media rallying to support them, there’s only so much customers can do during social distancing. What is the government doing in the short-term?
MN: You hit the nail on the head, with COVID-19 we’re asking Canadians to do some pretty extraordinary things to flatten this curve.
Job #1 is keeping Canadians safe and healthy, and while Canadians have really been doing their part by staying home, this has impacted small businesses trying to stay afloat.
So how are we helping them? Businesses have asked us for 3 really big things:
We needed to help them keep their employees. Many businesses were facing tough decisions about whether or not to lay off their employees, but we know that if we want our economy to fully recover after this, we’ll need employers and employees to stay together. So this is what our 75% wage subsidy is about – it’s about helping businesses keep their employees and rehire any they’ve had to let go.
The second thing is, businesses are concerned about paying their bills. They’ve got operating costs – so the federal government has put an enormous amount of lending out into the marketplace, and this is where the $40,000 interest free loan ($10,000 of which is forgivable if you’re able to pay it back by the end of 2022) comes in. As of yesterday, over 400,000 small business owners have been approved for this loan. And that’s just for small business owners, we have more options for medium sized and larger businesses.
The third thing is that business owners were concerned about being able to pay taxes or remittances to the federal government for GST, HST, customs, and duties. So we deferred those for three months, so business owners can keep that money to manage through this period. That’s going to help about 3.2 million businesses, and just by deferring those remittances alone, that’s equivalent to a $30 billion interest-free loan to Canadian business owners
And today, we introduced a 75% reduction in rent for small businesses, so even if your shop is closed, if your rent is under $50,000 a month, you’ll qualify for this reduction in rent. That’s going to keep a lot of businesses afloat.
We have other measures for students, families, larger businesses etc, but these are specifically to help small business owners weather the storm, so that when it’s safe to re-open, businesses are intact.
BC: And how are those programs impacting business owners at the moment?
MN: We’re seeing so many interesting things businesses are doing in terms of pivoting and innovating in order to respond to their customers.
For example, we spoke with a bakery owner in Atlantic Canada who combined the loan and wage subsidy to help pay the wages of her 5 employees, and then used the additional funds to improve her online ordering platform, which will help expand her business even after the period of social distancing. We’re hearing stories like that from all over Canada – you’re not an entrepreneur or business owner without having that grit, and that constant problem solving ability.
BC: Particularly in terms of your international trade portfolio, how is the government projecting things to change for Canadian trade in the coming months?
MN: So we’ve committed, along with my trade minister colleagues from G20 countries, to keeping supply chains open, especially for critical medical supplies and for essential agricultural products.
Especially with agricultural supply chains, Canada is an important contributor to ensuring global food security, so we’re working with the World Trade Organization to keep those agricultural lines open. As you know, Canada’s a trading country, and it’s really important we maintain those trading relationships to allow them to continue to grow post COVID-19.
(Source below: Canadian import/export values 2015 – present, Statistics Canada, March 2020)
BC: You have a mandate to support the growth of women entrepreneurship in Canada. How are you helping women entrepreneurs and business leaders now?
MN: Before COVID-19, we had made a $2 billion investment in the federal Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy – and we were predicting a rate of return for adding women to the Canadian economy of up to $150 billion by 2026. We were building an ecosystem of support for women across the country, including by helping women in technology and in the trades, that will continue beyond COVID-19.
But what I will say is that I’ve spoken to a number of female entrepreneurs through COVID-19, and it’s becoming even more obvious that the disproportionate responsibility for caregiving still rests on women. Imagine if you had just started your business, and now you’re looking after kids who are now at home, and you may also have caregiving responsibilities for an elderly parent. Female entrepreneurs are really squeezed right now, so I’m paying particular attention, as are my colleagues in government, to make sure that women entrepreneurs are supported during this time.
(Source below: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)
BC: Economists are predicting recession going into 2021, 2022 – everyone seems to have different takes on the length – but is Canada prepared for that?
Before COVID-19, we were in a very strong position, over a million jobs had been created over the past 5 years, we had record low unemployment and big investments coming into the country, and an innovative economy fostering some incredible companies.
So this crisis has really shown what these investments were about – fortifying Canadian businesses to survive through rough patches. And now that we’ve hit this crisis, these additional short-term measures are going to help them make it into recovery and preserve as many jobs as possible.
BC: Yesterday Western Canadian Select dipped to historic lows, and Albertan businesses are feeling the impact of this recession compounded – possibly more so than the rest of the country.
Will any emergency or longer-term relief be specialized for oil and gas businesses or employees?
When you think about the heart of entrepreneurialism, you think of Alberta.
But even then, Albertan families and Albertan small businesses will need support through this. That’s why we’ve launched an investment of $1.7 billion to clean up orphan wells in Alberta, which will have the effect of creating job opportunities while also helping the environment.
And I know many companies in the energy sector are larger and will need bigger lending, so we have lending products that go up to $12.5 million. And with the wage subsidy, the only thing companies will need to demonstrate is a loss of revenue, no matter how large they are. So I think the combination of those efforts, plus our investment for orphan wells will make an impact. But we’re going to keep listening to businesses in Alberta and all across the country, because our work isn’t done to fight COVID-19 and get on to restarting the economy.