Small Indigenous businesses struggle with coronavirus closure, adapt through online means

Sam Laskaris, April 22, 2020

The Owls Path Marketplace opened on Port Alberni’s 3rd Avenue in mid March, but soon had to close its doors as COVID-19 measures took hold. The business has been able to continue through online sales, and remains optimistic it will reopen its storefront location. Pictured are team members (from left) Aaron Prest, Penelope Lucas, Mary Mason and Joel Marriott. (Karly Blats photo)

Port Alberni, BC — 

The timing could not have been much worse.

Back in mid-March Joel Marriott and his wife Mary Mason opened the doors to their new Port Alberni-based business, The Owls Path Marketplace.  

“Day One was busy,” Marriott said. “We had 30-40 people come through and we had some excellent feedback.”

That was on a Saturday. By Monday, however, COVID-19 restrictions forced the couple to close the doors on its latest venture. The Owls Path Marketplace features Indigenous art as well as Indigenous clothing and hand-crafted products.

As a result of the pandemic Marriott, a member of White Bear First Nations in Saskatchewan and Mason, a native of Marshall Islands, had to move quickly and for now switch their business to an online-only venture, which can be viewed at www.theowlspathmarket.com

As a result, their current sales are just a small fraction of what they would have anticipated had their store remained opened.

“Pictures are great but you can’t really figure out the value of it,” Mason said, adding the couple does not anticipate making artwork sales. “If you’re going into a store you want to pick up that piece.”

For now, Indigenous leggings are the best sellers online for the business. The majority of sales have been to Port Alberni residents.

“We haven’t really started marketing our website,” Mason said.

But that could change real soon. That’s because depending on how long restrictions last and their store remains closed to the public, the lone source of income for The Owls Path Marketplace for the foreseeable future could potentially just be online sales.

“Joel and I can’t stop brainstorming and thinking of ideas,” she said.

Mason said since it is unknown when restrictions will be lifted and those businesses that are currently closed will be allowed to open again, alternatives could be necessary.

“Businesses need to rethink,” she said. “They need to have a backup plan and see if they can do things online.”

Mason is hoping The Owls Path Marketplace survives the current crisis and it can reopen again one day.

“I believe we will,” she said. “I’m a pretty positive person.”

Mason and her husband were able to cover April’s rent. But they are not sure about paying rent for upcoming months.

“We asked our landlord for a deferral of our rent but we haven’t heard anything yet,” she said.

Gord Johns, the MP for Courtenay-Alberni, is doing what he can to help small business owners like Mason and Marriott.

Earlier this month Johns, who is the NDP critic for Economic Development and Small Business, teamed up with Peter Julian, the MP for New Westminster-Burnaby who is also the NDP’s critic for Finance, to co-write a letter to Bill Morneau, Canada’s Finance Minister. In their letter Johns and Julian propose ideas and tell Morneau that many small businesses across the country need financial help to pay their rent.

“Too many small businesses are falling through the cracks of the policies anchored by the Canada Emergency Wage Supplement, federally-backed credit, and deferred income and sales tax remittances,” wrote Johns and Julian in their letter. “Entrepreneurs don’t benefit from the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit or the Canada Emergency Business Account. Many businesses either don’t qualify for these supports, or the programs aren’t meeting their needs.”

According to information from a survey conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, four out of 10 businesses did not pay their full rent for the month of April. In the same survey 42 per cent of small businesses are concerned they might have to permanently close.

“With no guiding policy to support commercial rent, landlords with mortgage obligations will respond variably to tenants who need support,” Johns and Julian added in their letter. “It is not enough to appeal to the goodwill of landlords to do the right thing. There must be a policy response to support those businesses concerned about their rent payments in the coming months.”

Johns and Julian also suggested various possible details so that tenants, landlords and the federal government could make a rent abatement program work.

Their letter added: “Businesses across Canada need more assurances from the federal government that support is on its way. Countries like Denmark, Australia, and France have introduced commercial rent relief programs for small businesses to make sure that evictions are stopped. We must support Canadian businesses the same way. They need solutions that don’t require them going into unmanageable debt. The long-term cost of not helping businesses now is far too costly to fail to act.”

Like Mason, another individual trying to remain positive is Tseshaht First Nation member Naomi Nicholson.

Earlier this month Nicholson told Ha-Shilth-Sa how dire her situation appeared to be and that she feared losing both of her Indigenous businesses. She even made a video detailing her struggles with no income coming in.

Nicholson has operated the Secluded Wellness Centre, which specializes in massages, for more than eight years. And for almost two years now she’s run the Chims Guest House, which offers visitors an Indigenous-themed experience.

Since she owns the building housing both of her businesses, Nicholson does not have rent concerns. Instead she has to worry about making her mortgage payments on the building. But Nicholson was able to secure a $10,000 loan, which will assist with her mortgage payments for a few months.

She’s also hoping to take advantage of other municipal, provincial and federal assistance programs for business owners.

“I definitely feel more hopeful than I did a few weeks ago,” Nicholson said.