When the history of the great COVID-19 pandemic is written, it will show that mistakes, as they say, were made. But it will also show that, at times, the best of humanity rose to the top.
That’s certainly true among Canada’s business community this past year, which was faced with an unpredictable, unparalleled crisis that forced the shutdown of countless institutions, throwing three million Canadians out of work at the peak of the crisis, and casting a huge question mark on the survival of thousands of businesses.
Some businesses tried to exploit the crisis to fatten their bottom lines; others saw an opportunity to help and took it. Amid the chaos of the past year, many businesses did both at one point or another, which is why some of the companies on this list of 2020′s business heroes and villains appear on both sides of the ledger.
Heroes: the companies that pitched in
As the pandemic hit, many Canadian businesses stepped up to help fill surging demand for emergency medical gear, helped along by financial incentives from the federal and provincial governments.
Manufacturers Magna, Linamar and Martinrea teamed up with a number of southern Ontario medical companies to produce ventilators; Brewer Labatt used its alcohol expertise to produce hand sanitizer, as did a number of other alcoholic beverage makers; Fiat Chrysler manufactured face masks; Canada Goose began producing scrubs and patient gowns for hospitals.
Watch: 2020 in business ― a year like no other. Story continues below.
More recently, a number of Canadian companies with expertise in deep-freeze technology have stepped up to help with the distribution of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, which needs to be stored at temperatures below -80 C. Guelph, Ont.-based Danby is among the businesses working on new freezer tech.
Villains: Major corporations paying out dividends while taking taxpayer cash
The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) likely saved a lot of jobs in 2020. The program tops up wages at pandemic-hit businesses by up to 75 per cent, allowing many to keep operating at a time of very low or nonexistent revenues.
But according to investigations by CBC News and the Financial Post, numerous publicly-traded firms paid out billions in dividends to shareholders while receiving billions in wage subsidies. The Post counted 68 corporations that paid out $5 billion to shareholders over a six-month period in 2020, while collecting more than $1 billion in wage subsidies. The investigations didn’t name specific companies.
That prompted Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to warn that CEWS money “must be used to pay workers.” Canada Revenue Agency recently launched a database of firms receiving CEWS after accusations government handouts to businesses were overly secretive.
Villains: Canada’s airlines, and their federal regulator
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, airlines found themselves in an existential crisis; thousands of air travel professionals found themselves out of work. But Canada’s airlines wasted the public’s sympathy by failing to do what other airlines all around the world did ― refund plane tickets for travel cancelled due to the pandemic. Canada’s carriers offered credit for future flights instead.
Thousands of passengers found themselves out thousands of dollars, with no idea when they may be able to use a flight voucher. In the U.S., where local airlines handed out refunds for flights interrupted by the pandemic, Air Canada was hit with a torrent of passenger complaints alleging the airline refused to do the same.
The situation was made worse when the Canadian Transportation Agency posted a dubious statement on its website suggesting airlines don’t have a responsibility to refund tickets, and that vouchers for future flights are good enough. Critics pointed out this goes against the guidelines set out in the air passengers’ bill of rights. They also noted the CTA is a tribunal, and is meant to rule on specific cases, not make blanket declarations of that sort.
But public pressure seems to have had an effect. After an outcry from passenger rights advocates, the CTA appeared to backtrack on its original statement on vouchers and declared that it was “not a binding decision.”
But now, with a black eye from their pandemic antics, Canada’s airlines are having a hard time garnering political support for an industry bailout, of the sort other countries are preparing for their air carriers.
Heroes: Restaurants offering free meals
Few industries were as hard hit by the pandemic as restaurants, and among business groups today, it’s openly discussed just how many of the world’s dining establishments will still be around a year from now.
But despite the existential threat to their livelihoods, many restaurateurs are helping out the hungry in their pandemic-stricken neighbourhoods.
For some, like the Family Corner Restaurant in Cornwall, Ont., it’s a continuation of a tradition that began before the pandemic; for others, like Calgary’s Eggs Oasis, it’s an opportunity to feed hungry people while ensuring its inventory doesn’t go to waste during lockdowns.
Whatever their reasons, these restaurant owners are building much-needed support for their industry in their communities, which will come in handy when the time comes for a post-pandemic recovery.
Villains: Food apps charging outrageous fees
Many restaurants turned to delivery services when the pandemic hit, only to discover they will either have to raise prices or lose money to cover food delivery apps’ fees, which can run up to 30 per cent.
Food apps defended their business model in the pandemic, highlighting efforts to alleviate the pressure on restaurants. Uber Eats waived delivery fees to customers to reduce the total bill, and ― and along with DoorDash ― waived commissions on orders picked up in person.
But these efforts didn’t amount to much, and a number of jurisdictions ― including Ontario and New York State ― have moved to cap the fees charged by food apps. Ontario has announced a 15-per-cent cap on fees in areas where indoor dining has been ordered shut.
Heroes, then villains: Essential retailers
It didn’t take long for the public to cotton on to a great irony of the pandemic: The people who are among the lowest-paid in our society ― grocery store workers and delivery drivers, for instance ― have found themselves among the most needed, the most “essential” in a time of lockdown.
Recognizing that it looked unseemly for their relatively low-wage workers to be out on the frontlines taking risks with their lives, retail giants including Loblaws Co., Walmart, Dollarama and Empire (Sobeys, Safeway) announced a temporary pay hike for their workers, typically around $2 per hour, earning applause from workers’ rights advocates.
But once lockdowns started lifting after the pandemic’s first wave, some retailers, notably Loblaws and Empire, rescinded the bonus pay.
It was not a good look for these chains who saw their revenues soar amid the pandemic, with other retailers shut down. They took criticism from unions and from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who declared in June these employees are “heroes” in a time of pandemic who deserve better pay.
When a second wave of COVID-19 hit Canada this fall, Loblaws said it would not bring back “hero pay” for its employees, but Sobeys and Safeway parent company Empire announced in November it would, in areas that were hit by renewed lockdowns.
Heroes: Amazon alternatives
With so much local retail shut down, 2020 was the year Amazon seemed to take over the world. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, now holds history’s largest official fortune. Big-box retailers like Costco and Walmart also thrived, staying open while malls and mom-and-pop shops shut down.
That has many people worried about a future where a small handful of giant multinational retailers control the consumer economy. To fight the trend, and to support local businesses, governments and entrepreneurs are launching new initiatives to keep local retail alive.
One notable one is Not-Amazon.ca, a site that connects consumers with local businesses in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Halifax, so far.
Toronto resident Ali Haberstroh started it in November as a spreadsheet of local businesses, which she shared on social media. It rapidly turned into a full site that now has more than 1,500 business listings in the four cities it covers.
Another Canadian, Montreal native turned Seattle resident Jonathan Sandals, developed Sook, a Google Chrome extension that aggregates product listings from numerous small retailers, allowing people to compare prices and products across numerous stores.
“What we’re trying to do with that extension is make it as easy or easier to buy local as it is to buy from corporate websites,” Sandals told GeekWire, adding that even in Seattle, home town of Amazon, people are “looking for alternatives” to the monolithic online shopping giant.
All of which goes to show that COVID-19 hasn’t killed Canada’s entrepreneurial spirit quite yet, and this pandemic could yet prove to be the springboard for all sorts of new ideas.