We’re well into month three of dealing with Covid-19 and somedays it’s hard to believe that it’s been so long. Yet the longer we go into this moment the more that certain things just prove to become truer and truer. One of those things is an idea that I’ve been saying for a couple months; while people will fondly remember those who acted well in this moment, people will not forget or be the least bit forgiving of those who decide to act otherwise. That was exactly what I had in mind this morning when this story came across my social media feed, one that hit close to home:
Everyone, I can’t undersell just how upsetting this news is, even in these hard times. The Finlandia Association of Thunder Bay is as much of an institution in Thunder Bay as you can get. The restaurant that they run, The Hoito, is a cornerstone of old Port Arthur, the large Finnish community in Thunder Bay and really Northwestern Ontario as a whole. It’s located in the basement of the Finnish Labour Temple, which was designated a National Historic Site. That same building also hosts the Finnish Labour Museum and was the home of the first community auditorium in the city.
The story of “The Hoito” is foundational for Northwestern Ontario. It was established in 1918, and according to their website, is thought to be the oldest co-operatively owned and operated restaurant in Canada. The restaurant came about as a way to help the local new Finnish community of the day. Bush workers at a specific logging camp were concerned that, while they could find cheap lodging in Thunder Bay, they couldn’t find affordable, decent meals to eat. That lead to a request to open a co-operative restaurant. That was taken to the Board of Directors of the Finnish Labour Temple and was approved. Fifty-nine people gave $5.00 each in a “Comrade loans” and hired union organizer A.T. Hill as the restaurant’s first manager.
Ever since then, The Hoito has been the place to go for great food for people of all backgrounds. When I was going to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, it was the place to go for breakfast on weekends, to see some shows and to soak in the city. It’s the place where I met former Reform Alliance leader Stockwell Day in an awkward story that sticks with me 20 years later. One of my favourite moments as a young father was taking my daughter there for the first time, having fresh Finnish pancakes as a family and passing the tradition along.
So to see that happen to them hurts bad enough, but what makes this even worse is the particulars of the circumstances that have come out. Like many other restaurants across the country, Covid-19 has put them under serious stress. Like many other restaurant operators, the Association has significant debts that needs to be repaid. But it wasn’t those facts that seem to have broken the camels back here. Nope, that seems to have come from the willful acts of one of Canada’s largest banks. According to their press release announcing this news, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) refused defer a bi-weekly loan payment of nearly $2,000 from March. RBC then sent the Association a Canadian Emergency Business Account application on April 2, but a week later in a conference call with the bank they learned they did not qualify for the government assistance and were advised to seek other options. Finally RBC demanded the Association come up with a plan to repay the debt and wanted an answer by April 27. That all lead to this news.
Needless to say I am gob smacked by that timeline, mostly because of the moment that we are in. If there is any restaurant, any institution that has a chance to rebound after Covid-19, surely it must be this one. As for Royal Bank itself, who normally makes billions and billions a year in profits, you’re trying to tell me they couldn’t work with them over a loan payment of less than $2,000? Are we supposed to believe that the bloody RBC couldn’t afford to give more flexibility over that amount of money? This Association has serious assets, including the Labour Temple itself which is a valuable property at a desirable location. Basically if RBC won’t work with the Finlandia Association of Thunder Bay, with all their history, their good collateral, and their better-than-most chances of recovering, who exactly will they work with to help?
And further to that for the Royal Bank of Canada, is being the reason for the failure of a 110-year institution of a community, a city and a region, and all the bad press & such that comes with being responsible for that, worth refusing to defer a payment of less than $2,000? Come on, not only is this decision cold, uncaring, callous, and irresponsible, it’s just plain dumb in a public relations sense. There is no way in Hell all the bad news and PR damage that will come to RBC over this will be at all worth that piddling amount of money. In the end, this is the bloody hill they’re willing to die on? Come on, that’s just bloody insane.
This story is extremely depressing and doesn’t hold out much hope for other small business owners out there. If a big bank like RBC won’t help this association, with all they have going in their favour, what chance to others in weaker positions have? There is talk that a GoFundMe campaign may be started if and if that happens, we will share it here. But in the meantime, for me this is one of the lowest moments in this global pandemic. It’s not that The Hoito may be gone, because sadly we’ve come to expect that many such businesses might not make it through this. What’s maddening about this news is how it’s happened. Instead of taking basic, simple steps to help this business through this crisis, Royal Bank of Canada decided to do nothing, sit safely on the sidelines atop a pile of profiles, and watch as this piece of Canadian history die when they could have saved it. The people of Thunder Bay, Northwestern Ontario and many others will not forget that and after this is all over, I feel safe in saying that RBC will realize that saving that $2,000 wasn’t worth the wrath they got from the public for not acting right in this moment.