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Despite a comparison to business-assistance programs in other provinces showing his claims to be false, Premier Brian Pallister continues to claim the Tory government is providing "the most generous COVID-19 support across Canada."

For Manitoban business owners, commerce stakeholders, non-profit employees and wage workers, the premier's claims not only lack any merit — they are "destructive" amid increased government-mandated pandemic restrictions currently in the province.

'Most generous'? Sorry, Mr. Premier

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Premier Brian Pallister has consistently touted the Tory government’s COVID-19 business-assistance programs as the most generous in the country even when faced with facts to the contrary.
Premier Brian Pallister has consistently touted the Tory government’s COVID-19 business-assistance programs as the most generous in the country even when faced with facts to the contrary.

Posted: 02/11/2020 7:00 PM

Premier Brian Pallister has consistently touted the Tory government’s COVID-19 business-assistance programs as the “most generous” in the country.

A look at other provinces paints a different picture, however.

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At a news conference Tuesday, Pallister went on the defensive about a previous Free Press article, suggesting provincial assistance in Manitoba is the "most effective without any abundant amount of red tape" like other jurisdictions.

"I'm going to ask the media to consider balance here," he said, referring to one-time loans such as the $6,000 Manitoba Gap Protection Program (currently offered only to businesses that don't qualify for federal aid); the Back to Work subsidy offering 50 per cent reimbursements for wages paid to new employees hired after June; and Manitoba Public Insurance rebates of between $140 and $160.

"We've got tens of millions of dollars going out to our small businesses every week ... Tell me which other province has a program like that — that actually delivers on the benefits, that actually puts the money out there, that doesn't have any strings attached."

But in multiple interviews, business leaders said they don't share the premier's views on the effectiveness of government support.

Providing concrete ways in which Pallister's repeated claims are incorrect, they took issue with support from the Tory government having "no strings attached," and a lack of directed support within Manitoba for hard-hit sectors (such as hospitality and tourism) unlike what is offered in other regions.

"The fact is, talking over and over about generosity is completely redundant," said Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce — the capital city facing mandated business shutdowns, starting this week. "It's simply not true and so much more can be done."

"There's several caveats and restrictions in the way these programs are being offered," said Chuck Davidson, CEO of the provincial chamber of commerce. "Several of those are very problematic for the businesses we hear from, and I cannot stress enough how important it is for the government to step in now that we're facing more restrictions."

"I don't see that kind of restriction anywhere else. It's actually very frightening to see them keep saying their offerings are better than other provinces ‐ and it's simply not true based on the numbers and restrictions we now have." ‐ Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business

Davidson cited Manitoba's COVID-19 assistance rules — that make anyone who has accessed federal funds automatically non-eligible for provincial relief — as one of the ways in which he believes the provincial government "does actually have strings attached" to their offerings.

"I don't see that kind of restriction anywhere else," said Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. "It's actually very frightening to see them keep saying their offerings are better than other provinces — and it's simply not true based on the numbers and restrictions we now have."

Recent polling from CFIB found Manitoba ranking behind almost all other provinces in terms of COVID-19 support "being helpful" — including Saskatchewan, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and British Columbia. Only 10.4 per cent businesses polled found funding in the province "somewhat helpful."

At Fionn MacCool's restaurant in Winnipeg, owner Jay Kilgour said "that's not surprising."

"I've had to let go of at least 60 people once again because of the new restrictions," he said. "And not only has my business completely been unsupported by the province, but my employees have yet to receive any help whatsover either.

"What happens to their families, their loved ones and everyone affected when me and other businesses are forced to let them go? It feels like spring all over again."

For Aaron Bernstein, it's a similar struggle. "I've been lucky to not be impacted in the way restaurants and bars have," said the Bernstein's Deli owner.

"But the fact is," he added, "that's all because of federal support. Even when we tried to get provincial funding, we barely qualified under their Back to Work subsidy that matches employees hired back."

Remillard said those kind of "confusing rules are made even more confusing under new rules."

"I mean who exactly is hiring back people now?" said Alward. "It's not June anymore."

"And thing is, the government is still talking about summer student programs ‐ well, it's now fall and we're in Code Red. What are you changing now?" ‐ Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce

A provincial spokesperson provided figures to the Free Press Tuesday about projected uptake under the provincial government's business-assistance programs. Calculating up to $997,482,000 in total COVID-19 relief, the province said it now has $11,400,000 left unused after spending funds towards the Manitoba Restart Program, the gap protection program, the Summer Student Recovery, public insurance rebates and eliminating property taxes.

But data from CFIB suggests those numbers do not include the provincial funds that must be returned by 2021, if businesses or their workers have also accessed federal funding.

That kind of return of funding is exactly what Winnipeg entrepreneur Matt Schaubroeck fears for his new company ioAirFlow, a digital auditing platform offering energy services for commercial buildings to increase their efficiency.

"The moment we got the $6,000 support, it immediately went into payroll," he said in an interview. "I just don't understand how they expect us to be here and be a part of the innovation economy when we have to purse through, while paying off our debts, to pay them back for something they gave all because we needed it."

Remillard said he valued what the government offered during the earlier days of the pandemic, "but there has been no adjustment since then and no planning about this since the very start."

"And thing is," he added, "the government is still talking about summer student programs — well, it's now fall and we're in Code Red. What are you changing now?"

On Tuesday, Pallister maintained there is "no need to draw comparisons for Manitoba," given its performance against other provinces. He said his government "is prepared to spend more if we need to, but there is a limit to how much the most highly indebted province in the country can do towards supports."

"I understand it's an awful time for our small business community," he said. "But to suggest that we're not stepping up with programs and delivering the money quickly — we are so.

"And that there's my lecture on that."

Twitter: @temurdur

Temur.Durrani@freepress.mb.ca

Temur Durrani

Temur Durrani
Reporter

Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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