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As clock ticks down to CEBA deadline, business owners plead for understanding from government

Some small business owners in Canada are asking for the federal government to reckon with the challenges they face as they confront a looming deadline to repay a portion of emergency government loans issued during the pandemic.

Businesses face a Jan. 18 deadline to pay back up to $60,000 in loans received through the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) program. Businesses that pay back the bulk of the loan before the deadline can see up to $20,000 of the remainder forgiven by the federal government.

Loans that are not paid back before the deadline begin to accrue interest.

Angela O’Brien, owns a lingerie store in West Kelowna, B.C. She told CBC’s The House that she was able to get the full $60,000 from the government, but she had to obtain additional financing from her bank to pay off the initial $40,000 and secure the $20,000 forgivable portion. That puts her in the government’s good books but leaves her with a major liability.

Premiers and business groups like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) have called on Ottawa to extend the deadline for CEBA repayment for the roughly 900,000 businesses that took part in the program. The parliamentary budget officer estimates that it would cost the federal government nearly $1 billion to extend the deadline for a year.

The House15:08Tough deadline ahead for thousands of small business owners

“Following many conversations with government, I’m convinced there won’t be any last-minute extension to the current January 18 deadline,” said CFIB president Dan Kelly in a statement released Thursday.

O’Brien told host Catherine Cullen that, despite the cost, government needs to step up to help small businesses that face difficult turns on a regular basis. She cited the example of wildfires in B.C. last summer that forced her to replace all her stock due to smoke damage.

O’Brien argued that the federal government — and the relevant civil service branches, in particular — don’t truly understand challenges faced by small business.

“That’s what small business faces on an ongoing basis, but there’s absolutely no understanding [from] our government [of] what we actually go through,” she said.

“Sometimes it feels like small business is in front of a firing squad, and it’s which governmental department or agency is going to take a shot at you.”

A woman stands in front of a sign.
Angela O’Brien, owner of the Esteem Lingerie store in Kelowna, B.C. (Submitted by Angela O’Brien)

Small Business Minister Rechie Valdez said that, as a small business owner herself during the pandemic, she does understand the challenges small businesses faced. Valdez noted the government has extended the loan deadline already and provided additional flexibility, such as a short extension for loan forgiveness for businesses that refinance their loans through their banks.

“I acknowledge that this is a challenging time. We’ve been there for small businesses in many [other] ways as well,” Valdez said, citing tax reductions and agreements to lower credit card fees.

Sarah Anne Mailhot, who ran a cafe in Casselman, Ont., echoed O’Brien’s call for the federal government to take small businesses’ concerns more seriously.

Mailhot said she wasn’t able to sustain her cafe through multiple lockdowns. She’s preparing to declare bankruptcy and has already lost her home.

“I don’t think the public understands the kind of labour that goes into having a small business. The government does not make it easy for us, anytime, all the time,” she said.

Mailhot said it seems like the government is more concerned about the needs of major multinationals than small local operations.

Valdez said the federal government moved quickly to support small businesses in the pandemic through a variety of programs, including rent and wage subsidies.

“We provided those to Canadians to ensure that small businesses were able to keep their lights on, keep their employees working and to keep their businesses going. And in fact, they are here today because we provided them with that support,” she said.

Mailhot told Cullen that, more than any specific measure, she’s hoping to get a sense of sympathy and understanding from the government and the public service.

“I think it’s a plea for humanization,” she said. “We’re so much more than data.”

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