Federal support only part of solution for Ottawa businesses affected by truck occupation

The trucker demonstration is approaching three weeks and that is keeping many downtown shops and restaurants from opening.

Business owners say they’re feeling the pinch of the protest and while federal funding could help relieve the impact, money only solves part of the problem.

On a sunny mid-afternoon day, the heart of Ottawa’s downtown should be beating strong with business, but instead the streets are dead and many shops in the area remain closed.

“It’s insane. It’s insane what’s going on and that they would let it go on for two weeks,” says John Borsten, who owns five restaurants downtown, some only steps from where the trucker protest is happening. “We just want to operate as we were. We get COVID, we obeyed all the rules, we did everything we could. The government did support us through that, and that’s why we’re still here. So we put up with four lockdowns and partial lockdowns, staff coming and going, take-out only and all that stuff, and we’ve made it through, you know, we didn’t lose money in this period, we didn’t make money anywhere like what we would be making.”

One of Borsten’s restaurants, Zak’s Diner in the ByWard Market, opened this past weekend after being closed because of the convoy. Even though the diner is outside of the protest perimeter, many residents and visitors continue to avoid the area.

It’s another blow to businesses, especially as many are set to resume operating at full capacity beginning Thursday.

“The trucks are all up on Wellington. It’s actually easier to get around, there’s more security around then we’ve ever seen,” says Borsten. “It’s very resilient down here, but we’re missing the three best weekends of Winterlude—even though Winterlude is not an official event. The canal is open.”

However, the Rideau Centre remains closed, keeping more than 1,500 people from being able to work. The mall is a major economic draw and a hub, for both tourists and residents, who shop, eat and receive services from the more than 600 surrounding small businesses, many of which are owner-operated.

“It’s a huge impact for us in the ByWard market, particularly where most of the OC Transpo infrastructure flows through the Rideau Centre,” says Kalin McClouskey, executive director of the ByWard Market BIA. “This has been a death by a thousand paper cuts for our businesses. We’ve had ongoing restrictions and closures with COVID-19, we we’re eager for things to open up and then we had this significant demonstration that’s really made our community not feel safe and it’s really decreased the foot-traffic in our area.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced federal support is on its way, but there were few details.

“While we get the situation under control we continue to have Canadians’ backs,” said Trudeau. “Downtown Ottawa businesses, in particular, have been hard hit by these illegal activities and in the coming days we’ll be launching specific support for this businesses.”

While Borsten says that financial relief will help, it does not help retain staff who have bills to pay and who may decide to find jobs unaffected by the demonstration at Parliament Hill.

“If this goes on and on, they’re just going to work somewhere else and I can’t blame them,” says Borsten, adding that it’s another unfair price to pay. “I’ve got to hire new staff for all five places and train and get it all going again. you lose all your corporate memory… it’s devastating. This needs to end; they can’t have another party this weekend on the street, not only is it not sustainable financially, it’s emotionally draining.”