The tourism industry across Canada is being rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing restrictions in place to flatten the curve.
To help, the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) is preparing for the bleak tourism season by providing grants to Indigenous tourism businesses.
“The industry itself and the Indigenous economy at large are in peril,” said Robert Bernard, Atlantic coordinator for ITAC.
According to the Canadian Conference Board of Canada in 2017, the Indigenous tourism industry added $1.7 billion to the Canadian GDP and Bernard says the industry was growing rapidly until the COVID-19 pandemic halted the tourism industry.
Social distancing measures have restricted travel and have limited how businesses can operate. And ITAC predicts if something isn’t changed soon the Indigenous tourism businesses may have to lay off 80 per cent of their employees.
“No revenues and lost income can mean many businesses are in danger of bankruptcy without long term cash investment,” said Bernard.
ITAC is offering up $1.2 million in non-repayable micro-grants to Indigenous tourism businesses, for up to $25,000 for each business. The deadline is April 30, and Bernard said businesses must be registered in their province.
ITAC is calling on the federal government to provide more funding because the grants they’re providing are repurposed from their own operating budget. Bernard says they hope to secure up to $20 million in federal funds to help more Indigenous tourism businesses. Bernard felt the federal government didn’t do enough to address the unique needs of Indigenous tourism businesses at their April 18th funding announcement.
“So many Indigenous tourism are young and they’re not yet showing a lot of profit, therefore, they end up not being eligible for the small loans program,” said Bernard.
And those new companies will have to compete with more established Indigenous businesses for the federal loans.
For Mona Morris, applying for federal help comes down to time. Morris owns three businesses in Eskasoni First Nation and said she has to schedule time to file the application. She said because of the social distancing restrictions in the community she's also helping with food orders, ordering items residents can’t find at the local grocery store.
“It is important I stay open so people can come and pick up the food that they ordered, which helps the community,” said Morris.
She said people can leave to grocery shop but fears of bringing back COVID-19 are high so residents would rather order food from her.
Morris registered two of her businesses with the Nova Scotia Indigenous Tourism Enterprise Network and hopes to apply shortly for the stimulus grant.
Business is different under the community restrictions; all businesses must be closed by 5 p.m. Morris runs Morris Pizza & Grill, a bakery, and a delivery company. She used to employ about 30 people before the pandemic but now she's down to a crew of six.
“It's affected us tremendously,” said Morris.
She's since closed her bakery but business at the pizza shop is very active. And she hopes the funding can help offset some of her operating costs.
“The bakery is closed but the bills don’t stop,” said Morris, adding she still stores some food at the shop.
She hasn’t had time to review the federal funding announcement but hopes they can help. Morris has increased her staff's pay because of the pandemic and added a rigorous cleaning schedule but says staff and customers all follow the social distancing measures.
“It’s hard but were managing,” she said.
Oscar Baker III is a local journalism initiative reporter, a position being funded by the federal government. He lives in Sydney.