OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is nearly doubling federal loans designed to help small businesses in western Canada get through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Regional Relief and Recovery Fund has already given interest-free loans to help Winnipeg entrepreneurs weather the economic downturn, particularly those that don’t qualify for larger federal programs.
For example, Juno Food Labs launched in February 2019, making hybrid meats from beef and plant protein meats for so-called flexitarian diets.
The firm went through inspections, branding and distribution plans before finally hitting the shelves in March "during the peak toilet-paper buying days," said founder James Battershill.
'We weren't really in a position where we were able to access many of the existing Government of Canada programs… So this filled some of these gaps'‐ Juno food founder James Battershill
His firm had traction, but the global pandemic lowered demand.
An existing emergency business-account program required data from a year prior, while staff hired last September were too recent to be eligible for the wage subsidy.
"We weren’t really in a position where we were able to access many of the existing Government of Canada programs," Battershill said. "So this filled some of these gaps."
The RRRF gave his company a $10,000 loan to stock up on inventory so it could keep making ground meat and kebabs despite supply-chain disruptions.
Another local firm, TaiV, got an interest-free loan to help keep buying hardware and maintain a customer base.
"I genuinely think this is a really good program," said Noah Palansky, who founded the firm in 2018.
TaiV uses artificial intelligence to replace the commercials on restaurant television screens with other content.
Before the pandemic, that meant menus and local information, but TaiV now facilitates targeted advertising, for which restaurants get some of the profits to help them during the pandemic.
Palansky said he applied for funding just after the RRRF launched in May, and bureaucrats phoned him back immediately to go over the company’s needs. They approved his funding application in 15 days.
"We were very impressed by it, every step of the way," he said.
On Friday, Economic Diversification Minister Mélanie Joly announced that Ottawa would be boosting its RRRF funding, with the western Canada portion going from $304 to $568 million.
"Every time you extend the social safety net, you really need to make it tighter, to make sure that no one falls through the cracks," Joly said.
Most of the funding is for amounts up to $40,000, and about a quarter of the cash will be directly targeted to rural businesses.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said Friday that increasing funds issued by regional granting agencies was a faster way to get cash to local businesses than massive top-down programs.
"By placing the funding in the hands of agencies that are closest to our main-street businesses, we are laying the foundation for more businesses keeping their lights on and Canadians employed," wrote chamber head Perrin Beatty.
In the first round of the RRRF program, Manitoba businesses took just one-14th of the funds split between British Columbia and the Prairies. The federal government said in July that was a result of fewer applications from the province, and that it would do more outreach to Manitoba companies.
Both Battershill and Palansky hope the program can help support the food sector, as patio season comes to a close.