Buy Local, or Bye, Local
Is there a point when both our civil rights and the financial and emotional well-being of our small business owners supersede the governmental measures in place that mandate small businesses remain closed?
It is the modern-day, COVID-19 version of the biblical parable David and Goliath. In this 2020–21 version, however, David is the metaphor for small businesses, and Goliath the metaphor for the government, at both the provincial and federal levels.
So what is at stake here? What is the fundamental battle between the powers of might and the might of small business owners, who consider the ongoing governmental mandate of keeping their small business doors shuttered against the transmission of COVID-19 an affront to their civil rights?
Civil rights, as defined by The Oxford Dictionary, “is the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality.” And therein lies the battle, one that is based on the politics and inequality of allowing big-box stores to open, with hundreds of people shopping their aisles versus small businesses, who count customers, one-by-one at the door, before they let them enter their store.
“I am a physical fitness trainer who has been in business two and a half years,” says Zach Boissinot, owner of A Foot Above Fitness, which is located in Ottawa. Boissinot’s gym is a 4,300-square-foot space whose business model is centred on twice-a-week workouts with personal fitness trainers, a key difference from the established monthly membership model.
“What they are nervous About is getting fined By the law officers Who keep showing up At my business” — Zach Boissinot, owner of A Foot Above Fitness
“Prior to COVID-19, on a busy day my gym would have approximately 15 people and 10 trainers present at any one time,” Boissinot says.
When the first shut-down orders came on March 16, 2020, Boissinot, like every other business in Ontario, shut his doors, as was mandated by the Ontario government.
“Truth be told, based on what I was hearing, I thought the mortality rate of people dying from COVID was between two per cent and three per cent; I was genuinely scared, so I locked my doors,” Boissinot says. “But by the end of April, I was going back to the gym doing my own personal workouts. By the middle of June, things just didn’t seem to be adding up as far as what we were being told about the virus and its impact on the mortality rate. To me, my clients’ mental health was at stake, so I started bringing people back into my gym for workouts.”
The doors to A Foot Above opened and closed over the next several months until the province went into yet another modified phase of openings in September 2020. By October, both police officers and bylaw officers were at Boissinot’s door, issuing him a series of tickets. When the gym owner tried to prove to the officers that he was justified in opening, by showing them documents that he provided personal services, a sector that was allowed to be open, he was told he could fight the tickets in court.
“None of my members, two of whom are in their 70s, are worried about getting the virus,” Boissinot says. “What they are nervous about is getting fined by the law officers who keep showing up at my business.” (Currently, Boissinot has been cited with two summons to court and six tickets totalling $4,200.)
On two dates in January 2021, four police cruisers showed up at Boissinot’s door to support bylaw officers who were there to issue him fines and a court summons. On January 12, the second occasion, he videotaped the full encounter with the police and bylaw officers and then posted it to his Facebook account. The video got 500,000 views from both Canadians and those abroad.
Boissinot was not alone in his fight to keep his small business open.
Derrick Noble, owner of NobleToyz in Bolton, Ont., has been in business for five years, growing his footprint from 700 square feet to 1,500 square feet over that time frame. His store carries a wide breadth of merchandise including Funko Pop! products, puzzles, board games, video games, Pokémon, and Dungeons and Dragons, as well as vintage antiques. A few months before the first lockdown, Noble had signed a contract to take over the adjoining unit to his store, virtually expanding his business to 3,000 square feet.
“I was shut down during the first wave of COVID-19,” Noble says. “It was a huge struggle for us; we did curbside but not much online, because that platform means hiring more staff, which is not really affordable. I almost lost the business.”
Claudia Rocca, owner of Klaudya’s Kloset, a gift store boutique, is another business that was hard hit by the first lockdown.
“The products in my store are big impulse buys,” she says. “You come in for one item and leave with 10, because my items, priced from $10 to $200, are both unique and affordable. In-store browsing is key to my business.”
Ironically, in addition to the wine glasses, mugs, soaps from England and women’s clothing line that the store stocks, Rocca also sells masks and hand sanitizers.
“In the beginning, every time the government said we had to close, I did,” Rocca says. “I opened a couple of weeks before Christmas, and two police officers came in and gave me a summons to appear in court.”
The financial hits for tickets issued and the threatening and worrisome summons to appear in court were mounting right across the board. Small businesses needed a champion — two, in fact, one being Vladislav Sobolev, who is the founder of We Are All Essential (www.weareallessential.ca).
“The reason why I started We are All Essential (WAAE), which now has over 500 businesses in its network across Canada, is because I’ve been protesting the lockdown measures since May of last year,” says Sobolev. “Having personal experience as a business owner, working with a lot of businesses in the city and knowing a lot of people as well, I know that there is a tremendous importance to supporting the small business sector. Also, I come from Kazakhstan, in the Soviet Union, so I understand, personally, the real ramifications of what is taking place in our country. A lot of businesses that we talk to are desperate. They are regular Canadians, they are law-abiding citizens, with young families and mortgages. The business owners in our network are extremely active members of their communities, in fact, they are activists in their own right. A lot of the owners on the WAAE website have taken it upon themselves to make educational videos and explain to people the reason behind why they are opening up. They are taking the time to explain the injustices of the governmental mandates. Within the WAAE network, we have captains who are business owners, and they are taking new members under their wing, showing them what the next steps are, educating them and supporting them, and I think that’s a strength. We are providing the essential support that most businesses feel they are not getting from the government. Defying the law is not something they really want to do; they just want to run their businesses and carry on with their regular life. But, they are forced to take these measures and defy the government. A lot of them understand the ramifications and importance of what they are doing; this is about way more than just opening their businesses, it is about protecting the freedoms in this country.”
The call to arms statistics on the WAAE website, which is run and funded by donations, include the statement that “there are 12,063 COVID-19 ‘related’ deaths in Canada and considering our unchanged population of nearly 38,000,000, this equates to 0.031% of the population who have died.”
Another statistic that has been shared on WAAE flyers and their website is that in the next three months, across Canada, it is expected that close to a quarter of a million businesses will be lost.
“That is crazy,” Sobolev says. “Even the businesses that are allowed to operate are limited in their capacity of how much business they can conduct, which again is crazy. Even if a business is open, the reality is, many of them are going bankrupt. They may be open, but they are not surviving. They are experiencing a slow death.”
One of the more notable businesses to make the news for defying lockdown orders is Adam Skelly, owner of Adamson Barbecue. He famously made the news when he defied lockdown orders in November 2020 by continuing to allow indoor dining at his Etobicoke, Ont., location that was eventually forced to close, albeit with the encouragement of a visit by the Mounted Police.
Current statistics illustrate the emotional impact that small business owners are experiencing.
The latest Statistics Canada report found that 57,301 businesses closed down between February 2020 and September 2020.
In a January 2021 survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) (Source: CFIB, COVID-19: State of Small Business, survey key results, January 2021), 42 per cent of Ontario businesses felt that current government lockdowns or business restrictions should be less restrictive to allow more businesses to reopen. Fifty-two per cent of CFIB members in Ontario strongly agreed that 2020 was the most difficult year ever for their business. In British Columbia, where initial cases of COVID-19 were seemingly managed in a much more efficient manner than in Ontario, 47 per cent of business owners strongly agreed that 2020 was their most difficult year in business.
Alarmingly, the study states that one in six businesses is at risk of closing, a number that when quantified represents 181,000 businesses.
So, how are all of the small business owners across Canada, owners who, after putting all of the mandated safety COVID-19 protocols in place, opened their storefronts against government directives, going to pay their fines and handle their summons to court dates?
Enter small businesses’ second champion, Rebel News owner Ezra Levant and reporter David Menzies.
The news site www.rebelnews.com, through the platform of crowd funding (which is how this online publication broadcasts), is defending small businesses across Canada who have been served with fines, tickets and summons to appear in court.
“What Rebel News is doing is basically taking on the role of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which seems to have a fetish of just trying to get prisoners out of jail, so that social distancing can be maintained,” Menzies says sardonically. “Oddly enough, we don’t see any pushback from the federal Conservative Party on this. You would think this ongoing attack on our civil liberties and our rights and freedoms would be something that would be a softball over home plate for Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. But all there is, is radio silence. In fact, there has been so little pushback that it became the impetus for Ezra, who used to be a lawyer, and does not like to see injustice especially when it comes to our rights and freedoms, to stand up for these common folk — these shopkeepers who are just trying to make a living. If it isn’t us, who will it be?”
Menzies estimates that Rebel News has taken on, currently, the defence of hundreds of cases. The site has also signed on with a Quebec law firm, which will represent up to 1,000 cases.
“Together, we can Prevent the loss Of 222,000 small Businesses and Three million jobs, While putting an End to countless Lockdown casualties” — WAAE website
“When the second wave happened, I had my mind made up that I was going to open,” Noble says. “I wanted to do this, fight government lockdown restrictions — as a small local movement, but then it exploded. There were a lot of angry people who were mad at me in the beginning and called the bylaw officers on me, but then, things changed, and these same people sided with me, especially when they saw big-box stores around the corner making record profits.”
Noble was served with several warnings, summonses and tickets, and he can’t figure it out.
“I did everything in my power to make the store a safe environment, to make sure that all of the COVID-19 protocols were followed,” he says. “And to my knowledge there has not been a single case of COVID-19 reported from our store. The percentage of COVID-19 cases in small businesses across the country are astronomically low, so it is absolutely ridiculous that the governments are destroying the economy and small businesses.”
“I am not Going to Lose my Business Because Of what is Going on” — Derrick Noble, owner of NobleToyz
While he says that he has a lot of respect for the Ontario Provincial Police, that he knows that they have a job to do, “they are the middlemen, their hands are tied,” Noble was surprised at the heavy-handedness of what happened next.
“The big kicker was just before Christmas — three or four days before — when a couple of bylaw officers came in and served me with papers from the Attorney General’s office. The document basically threatened me with jail time if I did not comply with the shut-down orders,” he says. “Anybody who was associated with my business was threatened with anything they could be threatened with, so I had to scale back to curbside. I wanted to spend time with my girls during Christmas, not be in the slammer; I didn’t want to take any chances.”
As time went on, however, Noble got angrier and angrier. Opening his shop was no longer about money, it was about proving a point on what he feels is the ridiculousness of the imposed restrictions.
“I am not going to lose my business because of what is going on,” he says. “Especially when I am following safe protocols, and you can literally walk down the street to Walmart, who is selling the very same products. There is just no justice in these kinds of restrictions.”
At the beginning of his fight to stay open, Noble was approached by people offering money, as well as lawyers offering their services pro bono, but he didn’t take the offers. However after weeks of not eating or sleeping, Noble decided to take the help that Rebel News was offering him.
“It took a lot of stress off me. They are supplying the lawyers, they are fighting everything for me,” he says. “I will never be rich running this business, but I love it. For the majority of small business owners, our businesses are our lives. This is how we feed our families and pay our rent. So why should we have to give it up if we are following all the protocols to keep our customers safe? Small businesses should never have been shut down in the first place.”
Which begs the question: “Which stores will you shop at when your region moves through and out of the colour-coded lockdown phases?”
Sobolev urges everyone to support their local small business owners.
“Together, we can prevent the loss of 222,000 small businesses and three million jobs, while putting an end to countless lockdown casualties,” states the WAAE website.
At the end of the day, the crux of the matter is clear:
Buy local, or bye, local.
“The moral of the story is that even under an emergency situation, that doesn’t mean the state gets to eclipse the rights and freedoms of citizens; they don’t have the right to throw the Constitution into the paper shredder. The Constitution has to be respected,” Menzies says.
If you have been fined and need access to help, go to www.FightTheFines.com.