This column by Armine Yalnizyan was originally published by the Toronto Star on Wednesday February 23, 2022. Armine is a Contributing Columnist to Toronto Star Business featured bi-weekly.
How does one fully measure the impact of a protest, either in dollars or in sense?
In the case of the Ottawa occupation, it’s hard to calculate but critically important to learn from. Because, in the age of discontent, we can expect more frequent and costly work stoppages that make us all pay, regardless of our sympathy or antipathy for the protest’s cause.
First let’s look at the damage this so-called working-class protest caused the working class of Ottawa.
Most of the people who were unable to work in the blockaded region are the same types of workers that have been hardest hit by the pandemic: people who can’t work from home.
Yes, Ottawa is home to thousands of public servants able to work remotely, but the blockaded area around Parliament Hill includes as many if not more workers in retail; restaurants, bars and hotels; hair and nail salons; cleaning and security services; cab/ride-share drivers; and health or dental services.
The majority of these workers are low paid. Their livelihoods depend on this cash, unlike the wealthy investors and shareholders who lose money during a pipeline protest.
How much money was lost, and who paid?
My estimate is that about $11 million a day was lost in wages of the workers who were in this position, who would normally be coming in to work in the blockaded area from throughout the Ottawa-Gatineau region.
This is based on half of one per cent of the area’s GDP, the half being the share of GDP that goes to wages, salaries and other compensation. With the occupation closing local businesses for 24 days, the total is $264 million in lost wages.
Business revenues have also taken a steep hit. The Retail Council of Canada estimated that the Rideau Centre alone lost $3 million in sales a day during the shutdown.
Multiplied by 24 days, that’s $72 million in lost commerce for one outlet alone. A local business survey found that more than half of 235 businesses in the blockaded area reported they would not recover lost revenue.
There are some costs we will all cover to provide some relief.
For example, whether workers are employed or self-employed, if they lost 50 per cent of their income or more during the blockade and had filed taxes for 2020, they can get $300 a week (taxable) from the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit.
Most people won’t apply because they don’t know about it. (It’s retroactive. Apply here!) But if everyone eligible did apply, that would come at a cost to Canadian taxpayers of roughly $36 million (estimated 40,000 eligible people for three weeks).
Taxpayers across Canada will also help foot the bill for the federal offer of up to $20 million to local businesses who lost up to $10,000 in revenues because of the blockade.
Closer to home, taxpayers in Ottawa will be paying for the cleanup of the blockaded area, which includes trash and human waste; and for the police costs of roughly $785,000 a day. If these officers’ services were deployed for all 24 days, that’s a bill of $18.8 million.
Add in 10 free days of public transit via the Ottawa LRT to get traffic moving to the area again, costing roughly $2.5 million (64,000 trips a day with fares at $3.60).
But Canadians from across the country will be paying for the additional support by police from other parts of the country to do what the Ottawa Police could not or would not do. There is no current estimate for this, but the order of magnitude is in the many millions per day after reinforcements from other areas were brought in.
In addition to public costs, a class-action suit seeking to claim damages from organizers, truckers and donors has ballooned to $306 million.
As huge as that amount is, the economic impact has been far greater, extending to not just personal losses of business revenues and workers’ lost wages, but public purse expenditures in potentially the hundreds of millions of dollars from the local, provincial and national levels.
I’m not including here the incalculable damage to Canada’s reputation as a safe trading partner with our neighbours to the south, and how that could cascade through supply chain realities and political discourse.
Nor am I including the cost to citizens who were blockaded in their homes, unable to sleep or access clean air or, at times, even food.
Nor the safety of other communities who had their police forces reduced so that reinforcements could be sent to Ottawa.
So it’s not just about dollars. It’s about sense or, for many, the lack of it. The true cost of the last weeks will be measured in both metrics for a long time to come.