Small businesses continue to fret as they await details of commercial rent assistance program

Many small businesses in Canada say they are struggling to pay their rent and they do not know if their businesses will survive long enough to take advantage of a federal, provincial commercial rental assistance program currently in the works.

Governments urge landlords to take part in program, but many still have questions

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"In the coming days."

If I had a dollar, or a drink, for every time I've heard that phrase — from all levels of government — I'd be loaded. 

To be fair to governments, stuff is coming at them fast and furious and help is needed on so many fronts it would make anyone dizzy. 

But for people who need that help, time continues to be of the essence — especially for small business owners in this country. 

Take Sandrine Campeau, who opened a confections store in Montreal in 2018. We first started checking in with her at the outset of this pandemic, when she had to close the store at the direction of public health officials.

A big part of her business is ice cream — and the season for that lovely treat had yet to start two months ago — so she pivoted quickly and started delivering baked goods.

Sandrine Campeau, right, was all smiles when she opened her shop last summer. But the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has presented a whole set of unexpected challenges. (Submitted by Sandrine Campeau)

Her pivot helped but not enough to pay all her fixed costs; she needed a loan to do that. She doesn't qualify for the Canada Emergency Business Account because she doesn't have a payroll (she employs seasonal workers during ice cream season). Two months ago, Campeau was still optimistic though. She planned to bake as much as she could and see what other financial assistance she qualified for. 

But as the weeks went on, and the "NOs" racked up, Campeau's optimism started to fade. This week when I interviewed her, the stress was evident. 

"We're still hanging in there by a thread," Campeau said. "But I don't sleep very much, my level of anxiety is quite high and my relationship with my kids is strained currently because I'm working so much."

Rent relief is also something Campeau and thousands of small business owners (as well as commercial landlords) are anxiously waiting for details on. 

At the end of April, the federal government announced a program, in partnership with provinces, that would result in tenants paying a quarter of their rent, the landlord a quarter and the province and federal government covering the rest. But the entire system is predicated on landlords agreeing to take 25 per cent less rent; plus — the details on how that program will work aren't officially rolled out yet (they're likely coming next week according to Ontario's finance minister Rod Phillips). So even if landlords wanted to participate (and that's not all of them), I've heard from many who don't know what to tell tenants because they're unsure of what they'd be agreeing to. 

WATCH: Businesses and landlords await details of rent assistance:
Landlords and business owners still have questions about the government's commercial rent assistance program. 9:51

Finance Minister Bill Morneau insists the program is working, telling my colleague Rosemary Barton that in a CBC News Special last week. 

"We're seeing thousands upon thousands of landlords signing up for this rent approach so we will keep working on it," Morneau said. 

To be fair to the feds, rent isn't even in their jurisdiction. It's a provincial responsibility and there the response has really been different depending on where you live.

According to Dan Kelly, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are the only two provinces that have issued a moratorium on commercial evictions. He names Manitoba and Saskatchewan as two other provinces that have offered rent support; but "other provinces have been extremely slow," he told me in an interview.

I asked Ontario's finance minister why his government hadn't introduced a moratorium last week, and he deferred to the federal program.

"We are anxious to see the federal government get that program launched and once that program is launched we're going to assess, you know, the programs, the progress it makes," Phillips said. "So once that program is launched, we can judge its viability."

At first glance that makes a lot of sense. The problem is; commercial tenants in Ontario that didn't pay their rent can be evicted this weekend. And if they didn't pay their April rent, landlords could have evicted them as early as the middle of April.  

On Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford got a number of questions from journalists about this. He said there would be legal implications if his government issued a moratorium on evictions, though he didn't detail what the implications would be. He also derided landlords who were considering evicting tenants, telling them to give tenants "a break."

"I can't stand these vicious landlords," Ford said when asked about tenants facing evictions this weekend. 

I have hundreds of emails from small business owners who are worried about this — I'm not making it up. In fact, those emails are so frequent now, they've replaced hate mail as the number one type of email I get. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm happy to see less emails wishing I would just shut up — but not if it means people like Sandrine Campeau are going through hell worrying they'll lose everything.

"I worry about how the next day is gonna go," she said. "It's just not sustainable in the long term, this could very well continue into the summer, and that terrifies me."

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