By Dan Kelly
Published in the Financial Post June 3, 2016
As Fort McMurray families return to their homes and survey the damage caused by wildfires, the only thing that is certain for the city may be some additional uncertainty.
I was relieved to see that the mass evacuation — one of the biggest in Canada’s history — went as smoothly as it did, even as I watched the scary images of fire and ash raining down from the sky as people fled their homes.
Many of the people, displaced in surrounding communities, anxiously await news of the fate of their neighbourhoods. And, just as importantly, what’s next?
Even before the fires, Fort McMurray was facing some big challenges. The resource sector bust has had a severe impact on the city, and business had slowed across many sectors.
Now, in some cases entire neighbourhoods have been wiped out and those families will have to decide whether they will return to their communities and rebuild, or pick up what’s left and move elsewhere. This is equally true for businesses, although it’s a relief the main business districts remain intact. Recovery takes time and there will be a lot of hard work ahead for the community, both in rebuilding homes and buildings lost to the fire, as well as restoring the population and restarting the economy.
The physical rebuild will require significant construction, and the good news is the government has committed to offering local firms that submit competitive bids first chance at rebuilding their community. The move will not only help jump start the local economy, but also strengthen the city.
I often tout that small businesses are the backbone of our economy — they are also at the heart of our communities. That is true in Fort McMurray and across Canada, as evidenced by the calls the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has received from small business owners across the country asking how they can help get Fort McMurray’s business owners back on their feet. Businesses have stepped up offering temporary office space, lodging and even essentials such as glasses and shoes. It is heartening to see Canadians rallying around the rebuilding effort.
We are also encouraging local businesses to register at the Red Cross business recovery hotline for updates and information on the re-entry process, as well as financial aid through the charity. As well, Fort McMurray has plans for a business recovery centre with access to government resources to be open by re-entry.
Businesses owners that have interruption insurance should file a claim as soon as possible and keep track of receipts from expenses incurred during the evacuation and rebuild. After re-entry, stay in close touch with your insurance providers to keep them up-to-date with the latest information and pictures of any damage from fire or smoke.
Governments, insurance providers and banks are also making resources available to business owners. For example, the federal government is expediting any employment insurance claims coming out of Fort McMurray and have delayed census filing dates for the area. Hopefully, these groups will remain patient and provide as much flexibility as possible to business owners as they rebuild, including pushing for delayed deadlines on payments due for such things as property taxes or lines of credit.
CFIB will be in close contact with its 200 members in the Fort McMurray area and will keep the local, provincial and federal governments up-to-date about their business needs. All businesses, members or not, should call the federation’s business counsellors (1-888-234-2232 or firstname.lastname@example.org) if they have any questions about their next steps.
The wildfires should serve to remind small businesses of the importance of having an emergency plan in place in the event of a disaster. Setting up plans to ensure employees are safe and aware of any responsibilities — including reaching out to customers or suppliers, insurers or banks, on disaster-related disruptions — can help businesses through difficult times. CFIB has resources available to help get that started.
Premier Rachel Notley and opposition leader Brian Jean should be recognized for their leadership and setting aside partisanship — something I hope will extend to the rebuilding effort.
As CFIB’s Calgary-based western vice-president, I got to know Albertans. They are driven, hard-working, and resilient. I have no doubt the town of Fort McMurray and the province will make a full recovery from all the challenges it is facing. Times may be tough, but Albertans are tougher.
Dan Kelly is president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and lead spokesman and advocate for the views of CFIB’s 109,000 small and medium-sized member businesses across Canada.
This story was originally published in the Financial Post.