The federal government is working out the specifics of its $306.8 million funding package for small and medium-sized Indigenous businesses across Canada, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) officials told reporters in a teleconference on Wednesday.
The funding, announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on April 18, is one of Ottawa’s latest assistance programs during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The aid will take the form of short-term, interest-free loans of up to $40,000 per business, of which $10,000 will be non-repayable.
Darrell Beaulieu, CEO of Denendeh Investments Incorporated in Yellowknife, said in an email that the $306.8 million in assistance is appreciated but more is needed.
His firm operates as an umbrella organization for several Indigenous member companies in the NWT.
In Beaulieu’s view, if companies in his organization received some of the federal funding it would be used for food security and housing, infrastructure problems and support for training and employment programs.
“Denendeh Food Services (DFS) is the most at risk because a majority of our business is in the mining sector,” Beaulieu said. “We understand there are programs for service providers such as DFS and DFS will be prepared to apply, if needed.”
The pandemic has taken a toll on mining in the NWT, with Dominion Diamond Mines announcing on Wednesday that it had filed for insolvency protection as a result the economic impacts of the pandemic.
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Bobby Drygeese, owner of tour operator B. Dene Adventures in Yellowknife, said he was looking into the federal funding and plans to apply because his company needs assistance to pay its ongoing expenses.
“It’ll help a lot to make sure we survive as a business,” he said.
He told NNSL Media in March that the economic downturn caused by Covid-19 had reduced his customer numbers by 70 per cent. He said on Thursday that he closed the business on March 19 because the other companies his works with had also closed down.
“We may have to think of innovative ways to revive from the mandatory business shutdown. We hope everyone overcomes the pandemic and everyone is healthy enough to get back to normal so we can see our family, friends and visitors once again,” he said.
Northern access points
The National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA), which works with First Nations, Métis and Inuit businesses across Canada, will channel the funding to the 59 Aboriginal Financial Institutions (AFIs) in the country.
Qualified Indigenous businesses in the NWT will be able to access funding through the six AFIs in the territory: the Akaitcho Business Development Corporation in Yellowknife, Deh Cho Business Development Centre in Fort Simpson, Dogrib Area Community Futures in Whati, NWT Métis-Dene Development Fund in Yellowknife, Sahtu Business Development Centre in Norman Wells and Thebacha Business Development Services in Fort Smith.
Being in rural or remote locations and having less access to capital disproportionately affects Indigenous businesses during the pandemic, ISC Minister Marc Miller stated in a new release.
The funding package was determined based on an analysis of Indigenous businesses across the country.
“We looked at historic data to see what business would be most vulnerable,” said Christopher Duschenes, director general of the Economic Policy Development Branch with ISC, during Wednesday’s teleconference.
Numerous Indigenous businesses were found to have outstanding loans and in working with the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association “it was determined they were in desperate need of relief,” Duschenes said, and the funding has been targeted at 6,000 Indigenous-owned businesses.
While the funding is aimed at small and medium-sized businesses, Duschenes said some of the details of the program were still being fine-tuned.
Some types of businesses, like limited partnerships, are outside of the program’s scope. But Duschenes explained that special consideration will be given to various kinds of companies in the application process, and that those issues were under active discussion so that businesses don’t fall through the cracks.
“With the allocation of the $306 million we hope … it won’t be a matter of picking and choosing recipients but the ones who are deemed the most at need will have access to the $40,000.”
Since several pandemic economic relief programs have been offered for Canadians and businesses — including for northerners — ISC hopes to ensure there is due diligence “so that there is no double dipping,” as Duschenes calls it. However, businesses should be able to access different funding sources for different reasons, he noted.
“(Applicants) will be assessed on an individual basis. The AFIs have come forward and said they’ll play a pathfinding role to help businesses navigate through the programs to identify which one is the most appropriate,” he said.
Impatience with Ottawa
The funding package might come as good news to some people, but impatience is growing among some Indigenous groups in regards to Ottawa’s pandemic response.
After Trudeau announced $305 million in Covid-related assistance for Indigenous communities on March 18, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) said on Wednesday that some of its members have been left out in the cold.
“This is an atrocity –- people have been waiting over a month, and now they’re being told no help is coming” said CAP National Chief Robert Bertrand in a news release. “There is no way these funds will meet even the most basic needs for off-reserve and non-status Indigenous communities. In crisis when help is needed most, announcements of token funding such as $250,000 to CAP’s communities prove the government’s neglect and discrimination against off-reserve and non-status Indigenous people.”
Although $290 million was allocated to the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Metis National Council, Bertrand said those groups “represent a minority of Indigenous people” and hundreds of non-Status and urban Indigenous groups “must compete for only $15 million.”