North

Frustration grows among N.W.T. businesses facing 'calamitous' side effects of the pandemic

The private sector has been laying people off and taking pay cuts and the government of the N.W.T. has not, says Tim Syer, president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce.

‘In an economy dominated by government, we fear there is no sense of urgency’

'The private sector has been laying people off and taking pay cuts and the government of the N.W.T. has not,' says Tim Syer, president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce. (KentKallbergStudios.com )

Five business and industry groups in the Northwest Territories are still waiting for a response after making a public plea to government to reconsider broadly restrictive public health measures they say are having "calamitous effects."

The groups include the N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce, the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, the NWT and Nunavut Construction Association, Northwest Territories Tourism, and the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines. They made the plea in a June 25 press release

"In an economy dominated by government, we fear there is no sense of urgency," the press release states. 

"[Government of the Northwest Territories] workers remain on full pay with no consequences to their personal incomes, household costs, or pensions (which we note, are largely supported by the taxes paid by the Northern and Indigenous-owned businesses that we represent)."

No pain, no action

"The private sector has been laying people off and taking pay cuts and the government of the N.W.T. has not," said Tim Syer, president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, on Thursday, a week after the press release was issued.  

Syer said there's much more the government can do to help businesses, while staying within the bounds of public health orders. 

As an example, he cites the government decision not to return to their downtown offices, which is having a negative impact on restaurants, cafes and other businesses that rely on foot traffic. 

"If there's a good reason why the [N.W.T. government] hasn't returned to their downtown offices, I have yet to hear it," he said. "My office is in downtown Yellowknife and we have figured it out."

The Tatsaotı̨̀ne government building in downtown Yellowknife. Syer says keeping government workers out of downtown buildings hurts retailers who depend on their foot traffic. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Another example Syer offers is the effort it took for a chamber member — the Copperhouse Eatery and Lounge — to get a liquor licence in order to serve drinks as it moved to a 100 per cent takeout business.

"They had to fight tooth and nail to get a change to the liquor regulations so they could do liquor off-sales with their drive-thru food," Syer said. "The government, they weren't responsive to that. They came around, they changed the regulations, but it took some effort."

More recently, the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce has asked for the layoff period for workers to be extended beyond 45 days before workers are severed from businesses, to 30 or 45 days after the public health emergency has ended. 

Syer said he's still waiting for a written response he can share with members. 

"We know that there is still scope to govern here, but what [the government has] done is inadequate," he said.

"They're demonstrating that they're not feeling it themselves." 

The government of the Northwest Territories did not return a CBC request for comment by publication time.

But the Yellowknifer newspaper reported Thursday that Premier Caroline Cochrane responded to their query with an email stating that the government of the Northwest Territories "takes the concerns of the business community seriously and was working with the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer and stakeholders to address them."

Measure the harms

The press release calls for the N.W.T. government to reveal the economic cost to date so that the harms can be more accurately measured against the potential risk. For example, Syer said, the government has done two surveys of businesses, but he has yet to see the results. 

The groups also want the territorial government to:

  • Get employees back in the workplace.

  • Ease travel and quarantine restrictions for those entering the territory, even if not uniformly across the N.W.T.

  • Provide "consistent and prompt answers" from the chief public health officer on how rules are interpreted.

  • And ensure "consistent and accurate messaging regarding the public health emergency."

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