‘Pro-business’ provincial government refuses to provide just compensation
Geoff Olson, Vancouver Courier
Published: Friday, February 06, 2009

For many Vancouver retailers, the Canada Line might as well have been a neutron bomb. Stores were left standing during construction, but customers vapourized. As I wrote last week, Mark Kenna and Alex Barker experienced the fallout firsthand from the transit project, losing control of their retail gift business Obsessions. The company is now filing for bankruptcy.

“We’ve struggled with debt and interest we normally wouldn’t have had in the course of this business because of the Canada Line, that’s stayed with us there all these years, and its been in the there behind us, dragging us down and down and down,” Alex Barker said in an interview. Obsessions’ three remaining stores have closed as a result of the mounting costs associated with their Yaletown location, and the couple are struggling to keep their apartment on English Bay.

The refusal of the B.C. government to compensate merchants along the Canada Line is something of a provincial mystery. Not so much a whodunit as a why-won’t-they. The mystery is compounded by the B.C. government’s recent offer to Tsawwassen homeowners to buy up their homes in the wake of the town’s power line debacle. Go figure: the reported health risks from high-tension wires rest on hotly debated statistics, yet the Canada Line’s ongoing damage to Vancouver retail outlets have been in plain sight for years.

As new immigrants to Canada 12 years ago, we had nothing,” Barker elaborated in an email. “No past business record, no credit history and no credibility. We earned all of that in spades over the following eight years. Then Canada Line stripped us of all of it.” At its height, the prize-winning Obsessions had 34 employees. “For eight years we built this wonderful business, and we had wonderful people.”

For Barker, the price has been higher than a trashed credit rating. One day last fall, a perfect storm of bad breaks and worse news pushed him over the edge. He and his partner had been to Royal Bank trying to negotiate a rescue package to refinance their business and pay off existing debts. Their loan was turned down, and the same day the couple learned the sale of their Denman street location had been turned down. Barker came home ” devastated and worried sick.” He drank a mickey of vodka, and took some of his partners’ sleeping and anti-anxiety pills. Kenna called for an ambulance, and doctors revived Barker at St. Paul’s hospital. “It was a wakeup call for me to stop the madness,” the businessman says in retrospect. “I wouldn’t say my home and business isn’t worth it, of course it is, but to let the government have taken me to that point…”

Barker says they have received virtually no help from Canada Line representatives or local politicians. “The government suddenly takes it away from you and you have that feeling you are totally powerless to do anything about it. I petitioned Lorne Mayencourt, petitioned Hedy Fry, Tim Stevenson, I had meetings with them all–dead end, dead end, dead end. It was absolutely crushing.”

Today Barker appears healthy and centred. Kenna is the one struggling for the right words to describe how he’s dealing with the epic dimensions of their years-long struggle. “I suspect again that this whole experience will offer me wisdom, strength for the next phase of my life. I am a very positive person and love the excitement of starting something or inspiring someone else through my own life lessons. I try each day to make sure I put a little time aside for myself to relax and reflect and focus on what I need to do the next day to keep me moving forward.”

He struggles with what’s been “taken away from us” by the Canada Line and the B.C. government. “I do believe that justice will be served. I do not care so much about the money, but I do care that they should be held responsible and accountable for what they did… it’s not right, it was cruel, total disregard and disrespect for our rights and principle and basically morally unjust. I still have a hard time thinking that this travesty happened here, in Vancouver, in British Columbia…. for God’s sake, this is Canada.”

Theirs is only one story of transit line hardship, Kenna adds. “Sixty or 70 stores have now closed… there are other people facing even more hardship than us.”

The pair are now looking for employment of any kind in Vancouver. It’s apparent to me these are two responsible, hard-working entrepreneurs, who had the misfortune to have a business in the way of a transit megaproject. Two assets to the local retail community, Barker and Kenna got shafted by the provincial government, which still has the unmitigated gall to present itself as the champions of small business in B.C.

Compensation is long, long overdue for merchants along the Canada Line.