‘A tough year’: Pandemic loan deadline an unwelcome burden, say Yellowknife businesses

‘A tough year’: Pandemic loan deadline an unwelcome burden, say Yellowknife businesses

Some Yellowknife small business owners say they need more time to pay back Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loans after a difficult couple of years.

Thursday was the deadline for businesses across the country to pay back the COVID-era CEBA loans, which the federal government provided to small businesses during the pandemic.

More than 885,000 small businesses and not-for-profits across the country took out CEBA loans, totalling more than $48 billion, according to the federal government.

After pushing back the repayment deadline twice, the federal government said businesses needed to pay back the loans in full by Jan. 18 in order to receive partial forgiveness up to $20,000. 

Loans left unpaid will now start to accrue interest.

Loans on top of loans

Rami Kassem, owner of the Yellowknife coffee chain Javaroma, said he’s made peace with the government’s decision, but fears for the future of businesses in Yellowknife. He took out a $60,000 CEBA loan to help cover costs during the pandemic.

Kassem knew what he’d be leaving on the table if he didn’t pay on time. 

“We’re all having the same issues,” he told CBC News.

“The $20,000 being forgiven will be too good for most people to turn down. They’ll likely take out new loans from the bank to pay for the CEBA loans.”

Kassem has taken a loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada to get through the repayment of his own CEBA loan. 

Kassem said he also knows business owners who took out separate bank loans to stay afloat not just during COVID, but also during the wildfire crisis in summer 2023.

“It’s been a tough year for Yellowknife in particular. Business didn’t return to normal until at least two months after the evacuation,” he said. 

In addition to the CEBA loan repayment, Kassem said January is usually a slow month for Javaroma locations.

Weathering the storm

Kassem said N.W.T. Liberal MP Michael McLeod helped him send a letter in early January to federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. In it, Kassem voiced his concerns about the state of the Yellowknife business sector. 

He said he hasn’t heard back. 

Kassem said he is hopeful he’ll be able to deal with any issues that arise from paying the loan on time, and acknowledges the role the loan played in getting him through the pandemic.

“I understand, I’m grateful. They did a good thing for us,” he said.

Disappointed, says chamber of commerce

Melissa Syer, executive director of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, said the organization fully understands the issue of the payment deadline, and the stress it has put on local business owners. 

The chamber wanted the deadline pushed back further for N.W.T. businesses, in light of 2023’s devastating wildfire season.  

“We were disappointed for all Canadian businesses, but especially for us,” she said.

A smiling woman stands outside.
Melissa Syer, executive director of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, said the deadline put stress on local business owners. ‘We were disappointed for all Canadian businesses, but especially for us,’ she said. (Submitted by Melissa Syer)

Syer said members of the business community have voiced their concerns to Ottawa, but it hasn’t had an impact.

Though the repayment date was firm, Syer said the local chamber of commerce will continue to monitor the situation. 

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce advocated for an extension for the payment deadline throughout 2023.