Alberta business federation calls for changes to federal aid programs

·4 min read

Low uptake in the federal government's programs for small businesses has Alberta's chapter of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) calling for immediate changes to how that aid is handed out.

Ottawa launched the Regional Relief and Recovery Fund (RRRF) in mid-May as a supplementary help program for businesses that struggled to qualify for COVID aid through other benefit programs.

It set aside $962 million to support businesses at risk of falling through the cracks, including $300 million to be doled out in Western Canada by Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD).

The aim was to help small- and medium-sized enterprises pay rent, keep employees on their payroll and rebuild after the pandemic.

This week, the federal government reported that $95 million has been deployed so far — just under a third of what WD has available.

"We thought the West was particularly hit by what was going on," federal Minister of Economic Development Melanie Joly said.

"There were still businesses falling through the cracks, and so that's why we needed to develop a new backstop to these measures."

Of that, about $48 million has been used in Alberta for 966 projects that the government estimates has protected about 3,500 jobs. A total of 1,672 projects across the West have been granted funds, and the government estimates that will save 6,829 jobs.

Rethink needed, CFIB says

The CFIB says those numbers aren't as high as they should be. The organization represents 110,000 businesses across the country, including 10,000 in Alberta.

"If you go through the application process, it's quite burdensome for businesses to even apply for it and ensure that money is also provided to those businesses quickly," said Annie Dormuth, the Alberta director of the CFIB.

Between the RRRF and the rent relief program, Dormuth says a rethink of that federal help is needed.

"The budget is simply not being utilized, and again that points to eligibility requirements that are preventing the hardest hit businesses from being able to access these funds."

The provincial government says it's pleased with the extra money being made available for Alberta through the RRRF, even if it isn't perfect.

"There have been more businesses in Alberta utilizing the funding than in British Columbia, Saskatchewan or Manitoba," the minister of economic development's office said in a statement.

The CFIB is also calling for changes to the federal government's rent relief program for small business owners, saying the criteria is too stringent.

It estimates almost 20 per cent of Alberta businesses will cave to the financial pressures of the pandemic.

Provincial government involvement

Dormuth says the federation has been attempting to communicate with Ottawa about the proposed changes, but those calls have "fallen on deaf ears."

Communication has become such an issue that the CFIB is now trying to get the provincial government involved to strong-arm the federal government into listening.

"It is now abundantly clear that while the CECRA (Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance) has helped some, it has left many more stranded without rent relief," their letter to Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews reads.

As of early July, less than 10 per cent of the federal money set aside for rent relief has been claimed so far, according to the federal department of finance.

"Ideally, provincial and federal finance ministers should work together to fix CECRA by establishing an alternative way to get rent relief money directly to tenants who need it," the letter, sent this week, concludes. However, if this is not possible to do quickly, CFIB urges provincial governments to immediately pull their portion of CECRA funding and redirect those funds to directly support small business tenants that have not been able to access the program"

Alberta's government says it has noted the deficiencies and is attempting to offset them.

"Our government saw the gaps in the federal CECRA program and passed the Commercial Tenancies Protection Act to fill those gaps, providing eviction protection to a much wider spectrum of commercial tenants than CECRA, while also encouraging those landlords with eligible tenants to participate," the minister's office said.

But the CFIB says that despite all the good intentions, the relief isn't being felt on the ground.

"That is why we're turning to the provincial finance ministers and provincial premiers as well to try to put some pressure to get this fix," Dormuth said.