Premier Brian Pallister had a blunt message this week for Manitoba small businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic: suck it up, buttercup.
Those weren’t his exact words, but they may as well have been.
Pallister was asked Tuesday what his message was to small businesses forced to close their doors during the pandemic because of public health restrictions. Instead of showing empathy for people who have lost livelihoods, Pallister decided to lecture them about the collective pain Manitobans have endured.
"It isn’t small-business people alone that are suffering, it’s a heck of a lot of other people, too," he said. "I’ll tell you what: we’re not going to reopen all the small businesses just because somebody’s yelling about it."
Pallister has never been known for his couth, but his dismissive attitude was more contemptuous than usual.
Pallister likes to drum up his past to show how connected he is to current events: he and his mother were both teachers, so he knows all about education; he was a union rep and appreciates the importance of collective bargaining; he grew up on a farm and knows his way around a bale of hay, etc.
His favourite reference is he was once a small-business owner in the insurance industry. So, when government forces small business to close their doors to help reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2, Pallister says he feels their pain.
"I come from that," he said.
But small-business owners have to pull their weight, too, said Pallister; even if they have lost their livelihoods.
"We’re all in this together, so we’re all going to do our part, and we’ll get out of this together, too."
That's not entirely true. Not all small businesses affected by government restrictions will "get out of this." Many were forced to close their doors and don't have the resources to reopen.
It’s easy for a wealthy, former small-business owner to imply everyone has suffered equally during the pandemic. Try telling that to the small operator who sunk her life savings into a business, only to see it go down the drain because of a government-mandated closure.
"We have restrictions that are tough, they’re tough on small businesses because they help save lives," said Pallister.
Any restriction that reduces physical contact between people during a pandemic will help save lives.
Manitoba's restrictions have been "tough," but they’ve also been applied arbitrarily and unevenly.
Economically, they have disproportionately affected small business and not-for-profits (often with little evidence those organizations were more high-risk than others). Big box stores and large industry didn’t pay nearly the same price. Some have even prospered.
There are entire swaths of the economy, including construction and the trades, where business has continued at near-normal levels.
There is some provincial support for small businesses hurt by the pandemic. Pallister claims Manitoba’s is "the most generous in the country." The jury is still out on that, but it’s nowhere near enough to prevent some from going bankrupt.
When pressed, Pallister says the provincial government doesn’t have deep enough pockets to adequately compensate all businesses (though it has spent frivolously in other areas).
"We’re doing the best we can with what we got," he said.
Are they? Is it fair many industries thrived during the pandemic, including some that qualified for federal aid, while some small businesses went under or are on the verge of bankruptcy?
Where is the redistribution of wealth to ensure those who sacrificed the most aren’t forced to pay the greatest economic price?
This isn’t about handouts. It’s about fairly compensating businesses and not-for-profits for losses imposed on them by government.
Not everyone has suffered equally during the pandemic. Dismissing legitimate concerns by operators who have sacrificed the most is unfair and callous.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.