It had been a while since Alana Fiks had been able to open her shop in Winnipeg when she spoke about the impact of COVID-19.
The co-owner of Black Market Provisions, which sells food and housewares, said the business has done OK as the store moved to curbside pickup when case counts rose through the fall and winter.
But other LGBTQ-owned business have had a rougher ride, she said. Fiks said she’s recommended some of them look at federal aid programs, while also trying to send business their way.
“There’s probably a lot of people out there who really need them,” she said in a telephone interview.
The question is whether those programs targeting LGBTQ-owned companies are doing the job, with owners saying federally targeted aid remains steps behind what is available in the private sector.
Compounding problems is that broader programs don’t appear to collect diversity data on ownership that LGBTQ entrepreneurs say would better track shifts in government procurement, for example.
“The federal programs, they’re still in their infancy and I feel like they have a ways to go to catch up even right now,” said Connie Stacey, president and founder of Edmonton’s Growing Greener Innovations, which sells high-end batteries and solar technology.
“To be honest, it’s the first time we’ve seen any initiatives that are coming out to support diverse groups, but we’re a long ways from seeing the real impact of what they could potentially be doing.”
But, she says, “you’ve got to start somewhere.”
The LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce says there are more than 28,000 such businesses in the country, contributing an estimated $22 billion in economic activity and employing more than 435,000 people.
They are often in the food-services sector, which has been hard-hit by the pandemic and is likely to take longer to rebound because it often relies on in-person interactions.
The businesses are generally smaller and newer than non-LGBTQ-owned businesses. That means they tend to have less money in reserve when times get tough, and fewer connections to rely on.
“We have a lot of customers who definitely come to us because they know we’re queer-owned,” Fiks said.
“There is also a camaraderie of being a queer in business. We have a couple in our neighbourhood that are all queer-owned, and lots of Winnipeg, and we all stick together and send each other business.”
For those in other areas, like Stacey’s green-energy company, the challenge is also being taken seriously when vying for large procurement contracts.
The chamber’s CEO, Darrell Schuurman, says that about half of the group’s members have hidden their LGBTQ ownership at one point or another. Nearly one-third have said they lost contracts because of their ownership.
That overarching concern harms their growth potential because they’re hiding a piece of who they are, Schuurman said.
“That’s a challenge and a barrier that they’re facing,” he said.
“When you couple that with the pandemic and the economic crisis, it just adds greater challenges.”
Federal aid programs have doled out billions to businesses to help keep them afloat as revenues fell as public health restrictions took hold, even while expenses remained steady.
Schuurman said many of his members weren’t able to access some of the programs early on because of their structure. For instance, many had contract employees, which meant they couldn’t access the wage subsidy because they didn’t have a traditional payroll.
Questions about aid are part of a survey the chamber has sent to its members. Preliminary data should be available in the next month.
The Liberals have since made changes that Schuurman said should aid many businesses that were originally shut out.
What the chamber is looking for now is a bigger push to diversify federal procurement efforts to give members a chance to compete for contracts.
“It’s not an advantage … it’s just about making sure that they have that ability to compete,” Schuurman said.
“Over the last year, I think that we have certainly seen the government advance a lot more on this.”