Sutcliffe: Businesses do not want to take sides; they want to survive

After two years, local entrepreneurs dream of going back to normal. But they’d settle for no longer being caught in the middle of endless ideological battles.

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Imagine, for a moment, the life of a shopkeeper or restaurant owner in downtown Ottawa.

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You take pride in preparing your little corner of the world at the start of each day. You get in early to bake the bread, receive a fresh delivery, or sweep the snow from the front step. You flip the sign on the door to open, and welcome the first few customers.

Some are regulars, residents of Centretown or workers in office towers. A few you might even know by name. Others are strangers, among them visitors to the capital. Each day, they are not just your livelihood but your social network. You’re grateful for every one of them, but you never ask whether they prefer Trudeau or O’Toole, Trump or Biden, Joe Rogen or Freakonomics, proven science or Gwyneth Paltrow. A customer is a customer.

And then, suddenly, a pandemic hits and your community vanishes. Sometimes you’re allowed to open, sometimes you’re not. But it hardly matters because no one is going to the office. Nor are there many tourists arriving the capital. There are so few clients to serve, it’s often hardly worth going in.

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But you soldier on, hoping to scrape together enough income to pay the rent and your employees, to stay alive until the viral fog lifts. When you’re allowed to open, you follow public health regulations and ask for masks to be worn and vaccinations to be verified. You hear stories that many people will never go back to working downtown, even after the pandemic. But that’s a problem for another day. Two years on, you’re just trying to get through one week at a time.

That would be, only barely, manageable. But the pandemic does not just threaten, it divides. And without your consent, your business becomes a battleground. Maybe some of your employees do not want to be vaccinated. Maybe they’re fed up with the uncertainty of on-again-off-again work and they’ve left town, found another job, or gone back to school. Some of your customers do not like the new rules and push back.

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You’re not part of any conspiracy with Bill Gates or the makers of masks or vaccines. You are not the establishment. You are not the government. You are simply trying to fight the pandemic and follow the rules. But when fear abounds, there is no refuge in logic. You become co-opted in a fight you did not ask for. If you offer a mild opinion, like saying you hope the federal government will bring its workers back downtown sometime soon, you are treated like a selfish capitalist who prizes profits over the health of public servants.

A ray of hope emerges as Omicron numbers gently improve and the government allows for some reopenings. But then a convoy of truckers immobilizes downtown Ottawa. Once again, people are streaming through the streets, but rather than bring you custom, some of them make a statement by arriving maskless. They antagonize your staff and demand you support their distorted view of freedom. So you close shop again.

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The point is not so much that you do not agree with the demonstrators. It’s that you do not want to be part of the fight at all. You wish people, particularly leaders, would focus more on finding solutions than proving a point. Polarization might be good for political parties, but it’s not good for business. Who will remove the wedges rather than exploit them for political gain?

Owning a business is an act of faith that there is something bigger and better we can build together. There seems to be little market for that right now. The pandemic has forced a kind of zero-sum thinking that is antithetical to entrepreneurship, one in which you must choose sides.

You dream of going back to normal. But you’d settle for no longer being caught in the middle of an endless battle, and just go back to serving your customers. Surely there is a way for us to get through this without turning on each other any more than we already have.

Mark Sutcliffe is a longtime Ottawa entrepreneur, writer, broadcaster, and podcaster. He hosts the Digging Deep podcast, the Mark Sutcliffe show on CityNews , is a business coach and adviser, and is a chair with TEC Canada . His column appears every two weeks.

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