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Egan: ‘(Trucker) rights trump ours?’ asks Rideau Centre worker


“What about the freedom of 175 stores to open, of 1,500 workers (or more) to earn a living, of masses to criss-cross in downtown’s indoor square?”

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Outside provincially-ordered lockdowns, in the nearly 40-year history of the Rideau Centre (1983), nothing has forced the closure of its doors so completely, for so long, as the trucker convoy.

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Not the famous sink hole, not a terrorist killing at the nearby National War Memorial, not the Ice Storm of 1998, not endless construction on Rideau.

Freedom is a word being hollered non-stop these dozen days. What about the freedom of 175 stores to open, of 1,500 workers (or more) to earn a living, of masses to criss-cross in downtown’s indoor square?

Honestly, has any sector of the economy suffered more than retail — and its low-paid workers — during this two-year pandemic, while taking on the unwanted task of enforcing public health measures (masks, distancing) not of their own making, for $15 an hour? And then they bear the brunt of this anti-mandate counter-anger, which has absolutely nothing to do with them?

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But, oh yes, trucker freedom.

Meredith Blinkhorn, 46, works as a supervisor in one of the mall’s stores. Many employees have lost a week’s wages and counting. (The centre closed Jan. 29. No re-opening date has been announced.) About half of the 20 or so in her operation are students or part-timers. She wonders how they’re getting by, if they’re worried about paying bills or making the rent.

“I really enjoy where I work, but you have this question mark about when you’re going to be working again.” And, in the current job market, she adds, will some workers just grab other low-paying gigs and leave?

She is disappointed the closure is also happening at the peak of winter skating and the Winterlude season, when the mall would benefit from spinoffs visits from skaters and visitors.

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But it’s more the principle, she says. “They’re not just touting their own beliefs, they are trouncing on the beliefs or ability of 1,500 people to be safe.”

She believes Cadillac Fairview made the right decision in closing the mall because there was no prospect of enforcing public health measures when dozens, maybe hundreds, of protesters were using the mall as — if nothing else — a mask-free comfort station and rallying area.

“We don’t understand why their rights trump ours, and they don’t have a problem with it.”

Just how much the Rideau Centre might be losing is difficult to pin down, but we know it’s millions.

Barry Nabatian is a director at Shore-Tanner & Associates and has done many studies of the retail landscape in the Ottawa area. Using industry standards for square-footage sales in our market, he estimated sales at the Rideau Centre of about $13.5 million a week, possibly higher with the Canal skating crowd.

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This figure is in line with losses of $20 million weekly being used by other retail organizations. To say nothing about the more than 400 other free-standing stores in greater Rideau area — many small operators, not corporate mall operators.

There is something else important about the Rideau Centre. In this day and age, it passes as a winter “village square” and forms a key part of the public realm downtown. It is, for instance, a major transit stop, both for OC Transpo buses and the LRT. It has overhead walkways across Rideau and pedestrian connections from the Mackenzie King Bridge to the ByWard Market.

It is, in effect, the indoor street closure no one is talking about.

Protesters milled about inside the Rideau Centre on Jan. 29. The mall was closed later that day and hasn’t reopened yet.
Protesters milled about inside the Rideau Centre on Jan. 29. The mall was closed later that day and hasn’t reopened yet. Photo by Errol McGihon /Postmedia

“When was the last time the Rideau Centre was ever closed?” Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury asked on the weekend, suddenly swamped with the trucker-blockade issue in his ward.

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It took four hours to close the place (on the first Saturday). To me that is a symbol of the local impacts of this.”

In a statement Wednesday, Cadillac Fairview said it was monitoring the situation in Ottawa. As for reopening, it wants to be confident its security guards, “with the help of the Ottawa Police Service when required,” can safely enforce public health mandates and ensure public order, including clear access to its street entrances.

According to a motion at city council this week, a survey of more than 200 businesses by the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas found almost 75 per cent had lost revenue because of the demonstration and some 40 per cent closed altogether.

The city is asking Ontario and the feds for relief funding for the merchants and their employees.

This is not their fight — yet it is, dear protesters, their space locked down, their freedom sacrificed — while you wildly exercise yours.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email kegan@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn

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