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From ‘soul-crushing’ to flickers of hope for Inuk business owner

Kirt Ejesiak has spent the past five years growing his company and the past month trying to figure out whether various Covid-19 funding programs will enable his business to remain viable.

Kirt Ejesiak, chair and CEO of Arctic UAV, has formed the Inuit Business Council (Nunavut) to give a collective voice to Inuit entrepreneurs trying to navigate Covid-19 funding options for business owners.
photo courtesy of Kirt Ejesiak

Ejesiak is the chair and CEO of Arctic UAV, an Iqaluit-based operation that uses drones for aerial imagery.

The crisis spurred by the coronavirus brought demand for Arctic UAV’s services to a crashing halt.

Scrambling to find relief, Ejesiak swiftly formed the Inuit Business Council (Nunavut), comprising several fellow Nunavut entrepreneurs.

In the early days of April, introductory federal aid for businesses wasn’t of any assistance to Ejesiak at all. He wasn’t eligible.

“The problem with having criteria that don’t fit the typical Northern business, it’s disheartening. It’s really soul-crushing,” he said at the time. “I’m really under water if there’s no support coming to us.”

Inuit businesses don’t want to take on more debt, he said, noting that Inuit Business Council (Nunavut) members are seeking an interest-free, no-fee $250,000 line of credit and a forgivable loan of up to $50,000.

There are extenuating circumstances that Nunavut business owners have to contend with, Ejesiak said, namely planning for this summer’s sealift when up to a year’s worth of supplies have to be ordered amid the uncertainty of Covid-19.

“A lot of businesses have (already) prepaid for goods, prepaid for insurance,” he said. “With revenues virtually going to zero, a lot of businesses are worried that we’re going to miss the boat, literally… if you miss that opportunity, that window to ship your goods up north, you literally miss the entire year. Who’s fault is that, right? Is the government going to help us for the entire year because we missed the boat? Those are the extraordinary cases that we’re trying to make.

“If I don’t make any revenues this year, I can tell you that I won’t be in business in one year.”

Ejesiak also faces a roadblock in accessing the 75 per cent wage subsidy for employees because he has up to 10 independent contractors that he hires, and those contractors don’t fit within the federal government’s framework. His own pay comes from a dividend at the end of each year, if there’s enough profit, he said.

“Those dividends don’t count as wages (either). In a nutshell, that’s the problem,” he said.

The Inuit Business Council (Nunavut) is calling for the Government of Canada to relax such restrictions.

Funding programs continue to be amended and new ones are added almost weekly. Ejesiak said he’s now hopeful that the recently announced up-to-$100,000 in capital per small business through the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor) will at least be enough to “keep the lights on.”

“CanNor seems to be the most responsive,” he said.

‘Devil’s in the details’

On April 18, the Government of Canada’s allocated $306 million for Indigenous businesses, but details on that initiative have yet to emerge, Ejesiak noted.

“For me, and other Inuit businesses that I’ve spoken to, the devil’s in the details. How quickly can we get this money out the door and how do we get it to the people that really need it,” he said.

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) and Kakivak Association announced a $1.5-million aid package on April 15 to help businesses offset operating expenses and provide a wage subsidy for Inuit employees, all non-repayable.

However, Ejesiak and other Inuit Business Council (Nunavut) members examined the particulars to apply for the QIA/Kakivak programs and found the amount of information required to be submitted was too invasive. He sent the QIA a letter outlining the concerns. but they organization’s response didn’t indicate plans to alter the criteria, he said.

The QIA/Kakivak response to Ejesiak indicates that requiring “basic financial information” is a “critical form of due diligence” and is consistent with obligations attached to other longstanding business aid programs that Kakivak offers. Glenn Cousins, manager of business services with Kakivak Association, confirmed no changes will be made to application requirements.

“Overall we have had a positive response and continue to receive and approve applications under the program,” Cousins stated.

The problem, Ejesiak explained, is that the QIA’s regional development corporations are, in some ways, in competition with certain small Inuit businesses.

“We’re not willing to share information with our potential competitor… I can tell you anybody that I’ve talked to, no way (they’ll provide detailed financial information),” he said, adding that showing receipts to validate expenses should suffice.

Ejesiak said he knows of another Inuk business owner who hasn’t yet qualified for any of the defined funding programs.

“Small businesses are in crisis,” he said. “We need support and we need it now.”