The loneliness epidemic: How the pandemic is taking its toll on young Canadians

The loneliness epidemic: How the pandemic is taking its toll on young Canadians

Colton Harris, pictured outside his family home in Whitby, Ont., is a first-year student at Algonquin College. Harris said he wishes he could go back to in-person class. “I miss the human connection,” he said. Photo credit: Cindi Harris.

Nothing about Colton Harris’s life looks sad. He is expecting a friend in an hour whom he met on Snapchat. But, pacing through his spacious apartment in Nepean, the friendly 18-year-old said he felt lonely.

“A lot of people don’t understand why I feel lonely,” he said, while making a protein shake.

Harris moved to Ottawa in September from Whitby, Ont. to study fitness and health promotion at Algonquin College. He is one of the many young adults in Canada who report feeling lonely and isolated, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue.

According to a 2020 Angus Reid Institute survey, 63 per cent of 18 to 34-year-old Canadian men experienced loneliness and isolation, compared to 53 per cent of women.

Loneliness is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General.

Loneliness can manifest in different ways with different people, often in the form of anger, fatigue, depression, or anxiety, Murthy wrote in his best-selling 2020 book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

According to a 2020 Statistics Canada report, loneliness is associated with increased risks of mortality.

And research shows people who are lonely are often ashamed to admit it.

Harris says his condition deteriorated since June when his relationship with his girlfriend came to an end. “I feel lonely and depressed even when I’m around people,” Harris said.

“When I moved to Ottawa, I had no one to talk to. I miss my family and my dog Cali, a goldendoodle. She kept me calm. When I did not want to talk to anyone, I would take a walk with her.”

He said he also misses his girlfriend.

“I use Tinder and Snapchat to socialize with girls. I crave a sense of affection,” he said. “I thought they care about me. They don’t.”

One of the reasons Harris said he feels lonely is because there aren’t a lot of things he can do because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“With the pandemic continuing, I have less and less to keep myself busy. I used to play baseball. It kept me sane. But there are no sporting facilities nearby. I just go to the mall and walk around.”

Harris has seen a counsellor, but says he didn’t like it. “I would rather talk to my friends than a stranger.”

The paradox of social media

There are several reasons for high rates of loneliness in young adults. Perhaps most prominent is the age group’s heavy use of social media.

A 2016 study found heavy social media users are three times more likely to suffer from depression and loneliness than occasional users.

Candace Konnert, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary, said social media use is related to loneliness in young adults. “If you are constantly viewing persons who are popular and socially integrated, then that’s going to, by comparison, make you feel lonely,” she said.

University of Calgary psychology professor Candace Konnert, pictured in her office, says loneliness can be prevented by taking measures early on. Photo credit: David H. Brown.

Konnert added a supporting environment is important.

“I am talking about family and friends and the extent to which they support you on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “It’s not so much objective support as it is subjective support — knowing that you can go to them if you need to talk about something.”

According to a 2014 study, there is a direct link between loneliness and addiction.

“Addiction could lead to less social support which could aggravate loneliness. But loneliness is a reason why people self-medicate. The relationship between loneliness and addiction is extremely complicated. It’s a circular relationship where one affects the other,” Konnert said.

A 2018 study by the Toronto Foundation found Toronto downtowners are less likely to feel their neighbourhoods are supportive of them. Across the city, young people aged 25 to 29 exhibited the lowest levels of social capital.

“People in this age group are busy establishing their careers, university students are often on their own for the first time and a task they face is to find partners,” Konnert said.

Tackling loneliness through community programs

Louis Keran, 18, moved to Ottawa from France in August to study communication and political science at the University of Ottawa.

“Most of my courses are online. It’s difficult to meet people. Some mornings when I wake up, there is no one to talk to. I just watch TV or play video games,” he said. “I feel lonely.”

Louis Keran plays video game in his Ottawa apartment. The 18-year-old moved to the city in August. “Sometimes I feel like I have no one to talk to,” he said. Photo credit: Amitava Kar

Keran played basketball in France, but hasn’t found a similar outlet in his new city. “There is an outdoor court nearby but it’s too cold to play. I wish there were more outdoor activities.”

Recent research shows participation in outdoor activities such as neighborhood walks, cycling and visiting local parks improves mental health and well-being. Taking part in these activities exposes people to nature, physical activity and social interactions that can have multiple health benefits.

Konnert emphasized the need to tackle loneliness at an early age.

“We have to take the long view. We know that kids who feel lonely are going to suffer loneliness as adults. That’s why each child must have access to facilities that they need to thrive,” Konnert said. “Some schools have come up with buddy programs and friendship circles. These kinds of social infrastructures for youth services are critical for targeting loneliness in young adults.”

One way to prevent loneliness is to look for early signs, she added. “We have to train family physicians, pediatrician and employers to identify warning signs.”

Social distancing predates the pandemic

Social changes related to family relationships are also affecting loneliness in young people

Young adults are seeing their friends and family less due to social distancing protocols. Millennials are more likely to say they have no close friends or have at least one best friend, according to YouGov.

But this problem existed well before the pandemic.

According to a report, 26 per cent of Canadians saw their family a few times a week in 2017, down from 38 per cent since 2003. Canadians also saw friends less frequently. One-person households are now the most common household type. In 2016, about 32 per cent of those living alone were separated or divorced, nearly triple the rate in 1981.

Others blame the decline of community and collectivism. Former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed once famously denounced what he called “the Americanization” of Canadian society, which “imposed an un-Canadian individualism on Canadian ethics.”

The American sociologist Robert A. Nisbet, in his 1953 book The Quest for Community described community as one of the powerful needs of human nature. But community is in decline, Nisbet argued.

Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created a new ministerial post to address mental health and addiction. Other countries have made similar moves. In 2018, the UK government appointed the world’s first minister of loneliness.

“The appointment of a federal minister [of mental health and addiction] raises the profile of the issue, but it does not guarantee success. These are generational issues. It’s a collective responsibility of everyone. What government can do is to mobilize people and set the tone,” said John Wilkins, a professor of public policy at York University who served 32 years in the Canadian public service prior to teaching.

While some classes are still online, his university is welcoming students back to in-person classes. “My students are back in class. But they are choosing not to participate,” Wilkins said. “They have withdrawn themselves.”

Back in Ottawa, most of Harris’s classes are also online, which means he spends hours alone in his apartment staring at a computer screen, instead of getting out and meeting people.

“I miss the human connection,” he said.

Glebe businesses, eager shoppers welcome Lansdowne Christmas Market

Glebe businesses, eager shoppers welcome Lansdowne Christmas Market

Jennifer Adam smiles behind her mask while standing in front of the various kitchen and home products inside J.D. Adam.

Glebe businesses and local shoppers welcomed the return of the Lansdowne Christmas Market Friday.

The Christmas Market first took place in 2019 but was cancelled last year due to COVID-19.

Store owners near Lansdowne looked forward to the extra traffic the market could bring.

When asked whether there was tension between local Glebe businesses and the market, Jennifer Adam, the founder of J.D. Adam Kitchen Co. on the corner of Bank Street and Third Avenue, said there was none.

 “Anything that brings people down to the neighbourhood is fantastic,” Adam, 59, said. “We like to have extra customers running up and down by the extra stores in the area.”

Adam said her business is established and has been in the Glebe for more than 30 years, but the presence of the Lansdowne Christmas Market “might be harder for newer businesses.”

Adam also said the merchandise her store sells is different from the products at the Christmas Market.

“I think it just adds to the great variety of products that we have around here,” she said, “but if someone was selling something that was the same as what we’re doing, then I would obviously have some reservations.”

Bassam Saeed, 38, is the co-owner of local sock supplier Uptown Sox and was a vendor at the market in its first year in 2019.

“As vendors, we had a blast here,” Saeed said. “At nighttime, they do a lot of events here, and a lot of families come out. So, you have that Christmas feeling right through the holiday.”

Bassam Saeed, co-owner of Uptown Sox, prepares for the opening of the second Lansdowne Christmas Market event.

Vendors are expected to open their doors for shoppers in the Casino Lac-Leamy Plaza starting at 5 p.m. Friday. Saeed said he was not worried about competing with Black Friday sales.

“It started on Black Friday in 2019 as well, and a lot of people still showed up,” Saeed said.

He added that because the Christmas Market begins later in the day, people will spend their evenings at the event.

“It’s a good evening getaway, and instead of going out on a Friday night, people come here,” he said.

Shoppers at the market Friday also expressed excitement for its return.

 “I’ll be going to the Lansdowne Christmas Market with my husband and children tonight, and we’re really looking forward to it,” said Gemma Needham, a Christmas shopper in the Lansdowne area.

“I’ve heard that they light up a giant Christmas tree on the opening night … so that’ll be tons of fun.”

‘Am I going to be stuck renting forever?’: A closer look at Ottawa’s housing crisis — and demands on the federal government to help fix it

‘Am I going to be stuck renting forever?’: A closer look at Ottawa’s housing crisis — and demands on the federal government to help fix it

Ottawa city councillors look to provide reassurance to Ottawans struggling to find affordable places to live in the city. Photo by abdallahh through Creative Commons licence, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

For Josh Horton, the housing crisis is personal.

The 32-year-old young professional living in Ottawa knows first-hand what it’s like searching for a place to rent in the city.

Josh Horton has been left wondering if he will ever be able to afford to buy a house. Photo by Josh Horton.

After dealing with a series of disastrous roommate situations as a student, Horton wanted to live alone. But this decision would not turn out to be an easy choice. Home ownership was out of reach, so his focus had to be on finding a place he could afford.

“It almost makes you wonder if purchasing is ever going to be an option for someone, especially someone who’s still early in their career,” Horton said. “Am I going to be stuck renting forever, or will I ever actually be able to achieve a purchase?”

After finishing school and securing a better paying job, Horton was able to move out of his student apartment in favour of a nicer rental with amenities such as laundry and air-conditioning.

But this upgrade cost him nearly double his previous rent. This was a price he was willing to pay, but experience has left him thinking about his future.

Rising vacancy rate

Young people struggling to find affordable rentals in Ottawa are looking for politicians to take direct action against rising housing costs, but experts say there are no easy solutions to fix the crisis.  

Rising rental rates are leading to vacancy rates in Ottawa that are well above pre-COVID numbers.

In October 2020 – in the midst of the pandemic – the vacancy rate in Ottawa was 3.8 per cent. That’s up from 1.8 per cent in October 2019.

Rising rental rates have affected young people’s ability to find apartments in the city, such as this apartment pictured on 1830 A Baseline Road in Ottawa. Photo by Mansur Omar via Unsplash.

Many apartments in Ottawa have been repurposed into short-term rental units. The number of short-term rentals in Ottawa has grown rapidly, with listings increasing by 83 per cent since 2016 and the number of exclusively short-term rental units increasing by 254 per cent over the same period, according to a 2019 rental market snapshot produced by Prism Economics and Analysis.

Ottawa’s short-term rental bylaw, approved in April 2021, restricted short-term rentals to only principal residences in residential zones. 

‘Federal government has to come to the table’

While the city’s short-term rental bylaw may help ensure more affordable rentals were available on the market, some argue the federal government, which has launched a 10-year, $70-billion National Housing Strategy to fund and finance affordable housing in Canada, also has a major role to play in reducing the strain on housing and rentals in the city.

But Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney says it’s not enough.

“If the federal government doesn’t begin to seriously fund the national housing strategy, there is not a city in this country that will get itself out of chronic homelessness and out of a serious core housing need,” said McKenney, who also serves as council liaison for housing and homelessness.

Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney stressed the importance of advocacy groups to support those in need in Ottawa and throughout the country.  Photo by Justyna Neon Lilith Czujko.

“The federal government has got to come to the table and fund its strategy. It’s got to give more money for new units.”

For Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, potential solutions to the housing crisis may lie in public housing and further access to funding. 

“I would like to see more public investment because public housing authority has control over what they build, and they have access to programs that really cater to making things affordable to people in lower income brackets,” King said.

For people worried about their ability to find affordable and appropriate places to live, McKenney recommends joining advocacy groups such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

“We have to advocate together. We have to fight together to make it better,” McKenney said.  “I would suggest people join a group like ACORN, work with people who share your concerns, but also will help advocate for you.”

ACORN Canada is a local and national organization of individuals and families of low and moderate income fighting for social and economic justice throughout Canada.

For King, his message to people in Ottawa and across the country is simple: the government and council are listening.

“We recognize this is one of the number one challenges for people. We know that, in terms of safety, in terms of just this basic human right, people need a safe place to live, and they need it to be affordable,” King said.

“We really need the federal government and the provincial government to step up to the plate and say, ‘It’s worthwhile, we’re going to invest in a real way in public housing.’”

‘There isn’t really a clear answer’

For Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University, the solution to the housing crisis is far from easy.

“All politicians would love to solve this problem, but there isn’t an obvious solution that doesn’t have other repercussions,” Malloy said.

One solution often proposed is to increase the supply of homes and rentals. However, Malloy said, increasing supply leads to trade-offs that must be considered. “There are issues about simply trying to service them. If our suburbs keep growing and growing, how do you serve those suburbs in terms of services and public transit? There are other costs involved.”

While renters in Canada continue to hear promises from political parties who take minimal action, Malloy said it is easy to become frustrated when nothing seems to change. But talk is critical to raising awareness to the issue.

“There isn’t really a clear answer on the political left or right, there’s not really a single clear answer, but politicians feel that they need to keep talking about it because it’s such a priority for people, and so they keep talking about it even though they don’t really have any solutions,” Malloy said.

‘Make the market more affordable for people’

Horton would like to see it be made easier for people like him to purchase their first home. 

“I would like to see a company that would do something realistic to actually make the market more affordable for people,” Horton said.

A step in the right direction for him would be for government to prioritize loan programs for first-time home buyers.

“If there was something that they could do to help with the market itself, I think that would be important,” Horton said. “Because housing prices just keep on going and going.”

Ottawa residents want change, but voter turnout remains low for municipal elections

Ottawa residents want change, but voter turnout remains low for municipal elections

Residents gathered outside Ottawa Police Services headquarters on Tuesday evening to protest a proposed increase to the police budget.

Back in October, Catherine McKenney called for a judicial review into the city’s LRT service during a virtual council meeting. At the time, the city’s Confederation LRT line had been stopped in its tracks for weeks following a Sept. 19 derailment.

The Somerset councillor’s push for a judicial review led to a heated debate regarding council procedure, during which Mayor Jim Watson muted Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans’ mic as she was making a point of order.

Watson later apologized to Deans, saying in a radio interview with CFRA’s Leslie Roberts he had only done so to maintain “some semblance of order.”

But after a move by protestors this week to block a busy downtown intersection in response to a police budget increase, Watson tweeted he welcomed “protests that are peaceful and not those that break the law,” leading some to wonder if the mayor is out of touch

Less than a year remains before Ottawa residents head to the polls and cast their ballots in the October 2022 municipal election. Between the string of LRT service interruptions, increases to police funding despite demands to defund and concerns of developer influence, there is growing dissatisfaction among residents who feel their concerns are ignored by the city council. 

McKenney, who says they are seriously considering a run for mayor next year, believes the discontent felt by residents stems from feeling dismissed and disregarded by the way the council conducts its business.

“People are asking for one thing and the majority of council is doing another,” McKenney said. 

“People are asking for real action on climate, and we’re not funding that. People are asking for less developer influence and we’re not doing that, the tax break to a Porsche dealership is an example. People are asking us to refund social and mental health services … and we’re not doing that, we keep providing huge increases to the police budget. People are asking for better transit, put the LRT aside for a minute and just think about transit and how we move around the city. We’re not doing that.”

These issues, McKenney believes, will likely be top of mind for frustrated residents when next year’s election day finally rolls around. 

McKenney stopped short of assigning blame to any individual councillor but emphasized that the “strong mayor model” of the current council prevents elected officials from effectively responding to the concerns raised by those they represent. 

By “strong mayor model,” McKenney is alluding to the group of city councillors, sometimes dubbed “the Watson Club,” who regularly vote in line with the mayor.

“The evidence is there, the mayor has almost 15 votes on every issue,” McKenney said, adding the city would suffer if debate during council meetings is not permitted. “Once you have a process where the mayor wins every single vote, where there is a group of councillors who will always vote with [him], it does not do this city any good.” 

Four young Ottawa residents sitting outside police headquarters on Elgin St. during Tuesday’s protest on the police budget increase.

“Of course, a mayor wants to see the city evolve in his or her vision. But you must have a debate and sometimes you have to lose because no one person, no matter who you are, knows what’s best for the entire city on every issue.”

McKenney isn’t the only councillor who has observed Ottawans’ rising discontent.

On Tuesday evening, Capital Coun. Shawn Menard tweeted: “I don’t think people realize the demand for change that this term of Council is creating in Ottawa. It’s larger than anything I’ve seen in recent history, much bigger than the 2010 sentiment.”

Menard was referring to the 2010 municipal elections that saw seven incumbent councillors, including then Mayor Larry O’Brien, lose their jobs following a protracted months-long transit strike. It was the same year that ushered in the Watson era.

Residents who were frustrated with the 51-day long strike – a result of OC Transpo bus drivers and city hall failing to reach an agreement on scheduling – headed to the polls and chose to elect an almost entirely new council.

The 2010 municipal election was first time since the city’s amalgamation that an incumbent councillor lost their position.

Watson, who has yet to confirm whether or not he has decided to seek re-election, has dismissed speculation his decision would be impacted by recurring issues facing the city’s LRT services, including the public inquiry announced by the provincial government on Nov. 17.

Should he run, he will be a force to reckon with. In the two previous elections, Watson has captured more than 70 per cent of the vote.

Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt, who was first elected in 2010, said concerns about councillors voting in line with the mayor are exaggerated. 

“It’s not uncommon … there are members of council who are adamantly against the mayor and don’t want to be seen voting with him and there are members of council who vote alongside the mayor without ever really knowing why,” said Moffatt, who has announced he will not seek a new term of council in 2022. 

“But I think there’s far less votes where this is the case.”

Too early to predict how elections will go but some residents are adamant that change is necessary

Even though some pockets of the city’s population are becoming increasingly vocal with their frustrations, it is too early to predict whether the Watson era will end in 2022.

“In some ways, people have been a bit shell shocked ever since the amalgamation of the city,” said Donald Swartz, a long-time member of Free Transit Ottawa. 

According to Swartz, when the eleven neighbouring municipalities amalgamated in 2001 to become the city of Ottawa, it significantly altered the composition of city council.

Swartz, who is Free Transit Ottawa’s representative at the Ottawa Coalition for a People’s Budget, said he believes the work community groups are doing may impact how council approaches the way it serves residents.

The coalition is made up of several community groups who joined forces to release the 2022 Alternative Municipal Budget to pressure Ottawa city council to reconsider how funding is allocated to the city’s budget.

“Whether it’s going to be enough to change the composition of the next council, in any significant way, is far from clear. But I think it will push us in that direction,” Swartz said.

Farnaz Farhang, a member of Coalition Against More Surveillance, points to decisions made by councillors sitting on the Ottawa Police Services Board as a further example of city officials ignoring community demands.

Rideau-Rockliffe Coun. Rawlson King has said delegations who show up to Ottawa Police Services Board meetings and demand board members vote to reallocate police funding towards social services simply do not understand the division of power between municipalities and provinces. 

“The type of advocacy and questions isn’t suited to the Ottawa Police Services Board,” said King, adding that residents should take their concerns to the provincial government, not city councillors. “The reality is we’re constrained by what we can do.”

But Farhang doesn’t buy it. She said she believes councillors have the power to reallocate funds to community services and supports and said community organizations are determined to keep pressuring councillors to better meet the needs of residents. 

“Whatever happens we’ll keep pushing and we’ll keep showing up and we’ll keep working together,” said Farhang. “It’s just about keeping this pressure and momentum on them and make councillors think twice about what they’re doing.”

Voter turnout in municipal elections is notoriously low

But will this determination to push for change translate into votes next year?

As the municipal elections draws near, the old concerns about voter turnout will become more relevant. 

Elections Canada data shows that voter turnout federally is low, especially among younger demographics, but it hit a record low of 59 per cent in 2008. 

Despite a slight increase in the last municipal election, voter turnout has never reached past 54 per cent and was as low as 33 per cent in 2003. (From City of Ottawa).

Although there was a spike in youth voter turnout in 2015, the year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swept to power, the voting rate for younger Canadians was still more than 20 percentage points lower than that of the older 65 to 74 age group.  

By 2019, the gap had widened to 25 percentage points lower.

Similar data doesn’t exist to indicate the level of engagement of younger Ottawans in municipal elections, but if it did, it may tell the same story.  

Which is cause for concern considering the impact local politicians can have on the day-to-day lives of residents. 

Though younger residents may find the mechanisms of municipal politics opaque, difficult to understand and even alienating, McKenney stresses decisions council makes impact their lives to an extent other levels of government don’t.

“I tell people all the time, ‘If you’re going to vote in one election, you should vote in the municipal election because what [council] can do in four years [can] change how you live.’ There’s nothing close to that with a member of provincial parliament or member of parliament.”

Ultimately, it’s in the best interest of younger Ottawans to get involved in local politics and vote, the councillor said.

“Given that we’re only 11 months from an election, get involved now. Make sure to cast your vote so that we can represent you in the best way that we can.” 

Starting small: How young entrepreneurs are realizing their business dreams during the pandemic

Starting small: How young entrepreneurs are realizing their business dreams during the pandemic

Meagan MacKenzie and Kitana Samson show off their food truck. Photo taken by Mandy MacKenzie.

In August 2020, after finishing high school, Meagan MacKenzie began working at a food truck to earn money. She found herself working alongside a friend from high school, Kitana Samson.

Fast-forward five months, and the pair were signing documents in January for their very own food truck.

MacKenzie and Samson are among some of the young entrepreneurs who seized the pandemic as an opportunity to turn their business dreams into reality.

But these endeavours are not without their challenges. Learning the financial side of business, finding a work-life balance, and the unique difficulties of working through a pandemic are among some of the hurdles these business owners have faced.

The Raging Twenties reached out to the owners of two small businesses to learn more about the challenges and opportunities that arose during their first year.

From best friends to business partners

MacKenzie and Samson, both 22, just wrapped up their first year of business along with a third partner, Owen O’Donnell.

“I’ve always wanted to own my own business,” MacKenzie said, “But when you express that as a kid, you’re kind of told: ‘Slow your horses there.’”

They run their business at a permanent location on St. Joseph Boulevard in Orléans. Their truck, T.F.T That Food Truck, offers gluten-free, keto, vegan, and vegetarian food options.

With minimal business knowledge and experience, the pair found themselves on a steep learning curve to get T.F.T That Food Truck off the ground. Their former employer, turned mentor, helped guide them at the start.

“He flat out just found a truck for us and showed us what you would look for in a food truck, and what inspections you need, and then the cost behind that,” Samson said.

MacKenzie recalled certain benefits of opening their business during the lockdown in April. With restrictions on indoor dining in place, their truck proved to be an accessible and safe option for people to come and pick up their orders outdoors.

They were also able to spread the word about their business early through various social media platforms. Sharing their business on the Orleans Ontario Foodie Facebook group with the group’s 11,000 members helped drum up excitement for the opening and even helped them gain some regular customers.

TikTok was another platform that came in handy, giving them an opportunity to show the human side of setting up a business.

“It’s been fun for us to be able to document the process and show people like, not just the food and advertise it, but show the process of starting a business especially in 2021 when it was a bit more challenging,” MacKenzie said.

“It shows the transparency, we’re real people, and you know it’s tough work,” Samson said. “And we wanted to show people that, because sugar-coating it sometimes isn’t the best way to go.”

The duo experienced long waits for permits, found themselves ordering pieces of equipment for the truck without seeing them in person, and had their opening pushed back a few weeks due to delays related to COVID-19 regulations. Despite the challenges, they have found the experience rewarding.

“I’ve always enjoyed cooking. I mean, there are days where I didn’t want to be cooking in that truck,” MacKenzie said in a Zoom interview in November. “But the fact that I could spend most of my days doing what I liked with my best friend was just so great.”

“Basically, it was a healthy work environment,” Samson added. “So many places you work are toxic, and they affect you in your personal life. The truck, during the summer season, it is our life every day. So, it’s just nice to have a place to go where you enjoy.”

In the future, they hope to expand their business to include catering services.

“We want to be able to eventually invest in a second truck that’s just for catering, like weddings, events, concerts, anything like that,” MacKenzie said. “It seems like something we’re very interested in doing. We’re gonna give it a try next year.”

From hobby to career

Lydia Hanna, 23, followed a different path when she started her crochet business, Crocheting Giraffe, in May 2021. For the most part, she runs her business solo, with some help from her husband to oversee the financial side.

Hanna runs her shop online but said most of her sales are done across several Ottawa markets where she tours as a vendor.

“I didn’t really decide to start a small business,” Hanna said. “It kind of just happened. I wanted to do something that I love, and I just decided to make the Instagram account. Just seeing how supportive everyone was, I just kept going with it, and then it turned into doing markets, and now it’s my small business.”

Social media marketing is a significant part of how she runs her business, but Hanna said it is also very demanding.

“It is really hard to reach people because each day it’s basically 24/7. Like I’m sharing people’s posts, I’m interacting with as many people as I can,” Hanna said.

Hanna devotes a large part of her time to growing Crocheting Giraffe’s online presence especially on Instagram where she shares behind the scenes updates to her following of 4,000 people. She also posts photos of her creations, with some recent highlights including hats, pumpkins, dog accessories and even the occasional crocheted Batman.

Lydia Hanna stands at her crochet stall ready for her day at Stittsville Market at the Barn. She is displaying her crocheted creations, including seasonal pumpkins and a candy corn themed garland. Photo taken by Erik Hanna.

Hanna said that time management and finding a work-life balance are some struggles she deals with as a small business owner. She found sticking to her own schedule and transitioning her hobby into a business a particular challenge.

 “At first, I thought it would be super fun, you know, like I’m gonna love it. And I do love it. But I did kind of struggle. It’s hard to balance your time too, have your time away,” Hanna said, adding that in the end it’s all about time management. 

Aside from selling her creations, she has also considered writing and selling her own crochet patterns, so customers would be able to make the crafts for themselves.

“I can have people from around the world messaging me for help with crochet stuff, which is really cool. … Maybe that’s something I’ll be able to do next year,” Hanna said.

Small business owners remain optimistic

Isaac Kinsella, a policy analyst at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, finds that small business owners are usually an optimistic bunch. The pandemic, however, might have changed that.

“[Due to] the current state of things, a lot of what’s been going on is the optimism has been dropping over time,” he said.  

The COVID-19 pandemic, the labour shortage across the country and the debt that small businesses may have accumulated are factors that Kinsella said may be adding to the drop in optimism.

According to Kinsella, small businesses are also more likely to feel the effects of certain fees or costs compared to larger businesses which are able to absorb the financial hit due to their size.

“For businesses that are already pushed to the brink a little bit, additional changes or additional taxes and things like that aren’t welcome at this time,” Kinsella said.

According to a CFIB survey from November 2021, 43 per cent of small businesses in Canada are fully staffed and only 36 per cent are making normal sales.

“When you’re only making a fraction of your potential normal sales at any given time, any extra [financial] burden on top of that is really going to be felt,” Kinsella said.

Government subsidies over the pandemic worked well to give some businesses the cushion they needed to stay afloat. However, programs such as the Canada Emergency Business Account have since been replaced with new ones like the Hardest-Hit Business Recovery Program, which offers rent and wage support for businesses with at least a 50 per cent loss of monthly revenue.

Twice a year, Statistics Canada releases Canadian Business Counts, with employees. This data shows the number of businesses, by number of employees, for December of each year. The 2021 data is based on the June report.

Kinsella also spoke to the importance of small businesses within Canada’s economy. According to Statistics Canada, small businesses employed 9.7 million individuals in Canada in 2020, which is around 64 per cent of the total labour force.

“And so, throughout the pandemic, I think what it’s done is we’ve had a little bit of an awakening to see how important that small businesses are, not only just to local communities, but also just the Canadian business economy as a whole,” Kinsella said.

Regardless of the challenges, small business owners remain hopeful and resilient. “It’s a lot of work, and it’s exhausting in every sense, mentally and physically,” Samson said. “But at the end of the day, I can look in the mirror and feel rewarded for what I’ve accomplished.”

To learn more about side hustles and women entrepreneurs, check out Rukhsar Ali’s article, From passion to side hustle: How women entrepreneurs are building their dream careers on the side.

Plant parenting: Plant care grows in popularity during the pandemic

Plant parenting: Plant care grows in popularity during the pandemic

Emma Terrell first launched the Urban Botanist in Ottawa to help others engage with nature at home.

“I started fresh out of university with the idea and intent of encouraging my community and encouraging others to engage with nature in an urban setting,” the 31-year-old said. “I was teaching people about plants and inspiring people to grow their green thumbs and learn more about terrariums and gardening.”

At Carleton, Terrell had studied biology with a focus on insects. “I would say from my earliest memories, I have just been completely enamoured and obsessed with all things living and growing and green.”

Her business, started in 2017, includes an online plant and accessory shop, facilitating virtual workshops, and designing living walls for people’s homes, businesses or events. 

Since the pandemic, Terrell has noticed an increase in demand for house plants and more engagement with her social media. 

“We’ve seen a real jump in the general interest of millennials and Gen Z’s… wanting to get more into the hobby of horticulture, the hobby of indoor plants,” Terrell said.  

Emma Terrell, the Urban Botanist, talks winter plant care and things to avoid. Recorded and produced by Aly McCabe

Terrell is among a handful of plant sellers in Ottawa who said sales have been on the rise since March 2020. Amid pandemic lockdowns, they said, Ottawans flocked to open garden centres to fill their homes with nature.

Now, over a year and a half into the pandemic, the demand for house plants and tropicals remains high. 

The popularity of house plants stems from a need to care for something. In the pandemic, houseplants became a way to boost wellbeing. 

“One of the things in order for us to keep well during the pandemic, particularly when we can’t engage in our normal activities, or hobbies, or maybe have reduced social contact with others is to find things that make us feel well,” said Crystal Holly, a psychologist at Balance Psychology and Wellness in Ottawa. 

For Holly, “Caring for things and kind of getting back to those simpler activities contributes to emotional well-being and overall well-being.”

Flower to the People employee Krista Evans said she saw an increase in demand at their ByWard Market plant shop in March 2020.

“It’s also just really nice to be around aesthetically pleasing things,” Holly said, “As people grow plants at home and kind of beautify and green up their spaces, they’re also feeling better.”

The snake plant Laurentii, one of the many verities of snake plants Krista Evan loves. Photo taken by Kara Eades. Accessed from

 “We were pretty busy with plants before the pandemic too, but it definitely increased,” she said.

She said she noticed even grocery stores and big box stores jumped on the trend, offering bigger house plant selections since the pandemic.

Evans is an avid plant collector herself.

 “I find it quite meditative,” she said, “I get a lot of satisfaction out of taking care of something.” 

Sansevarias – or snake plants – are Evans’s favourites, and she said she has 60 different varieties in her home.

More demand, more popularity

The Plante family has been a part of the Ottawa plant and garden scene since 1981, when they started selling in the ByWard Market. In 2001, they opened Robert Plante Greenhouses in Navan, Ont. 

Spokesperson Colin Matassa said they had never seen the kind of demand brought on by the pandemic.

“March 2020 is when the demand went through the roof,” he said. 

The greenhouse always carried house plants, Matassa added, but they have never been so popular.

The brand-new 2,700-square-metre greenhouse is filled with houseplants and accessories. “There’s always something for everyone,” Matassa said.

On a sunny afternoon in November, greenhouse customers said they were reaping the benefits of the wide house plant selection.

“I’ve collected house plants off and on for years,” Kim White said as she browsed the greenery at the greenhouse. “It’s gotten worse since I found this place.” 

White was shopping with her friend Krista Gower, a new plant mom whose collection began in February 2021.

“It’s almost like self-care for me to take the time to care for my plants,” Gower said. “It’s fun to watch them grow.”

Erik Watt-Sorensen and Elena Ienzi were also shopping for new houseplants and accessories.

Ienzi said her plant collection started when the pandemic started.

“It’s a hobby,” she said. “I used to travel all the time but not anymore because of COVID.”

Plants “definitely bring some joy and happiness,” Watt-Sorensen said. “It’s really nice on your days off because you always have something to do.” 

Taking care of nature, taking care of ourselves

Full shelves at Plant & Curio on Preston St, Ottawa, Ont. Photo by Aly McCabe

To Emma Terrell, the growing interest in plants stems from a greater need for people to take care of themselves.

“I think that more people were looking for something to do, not only to fill up their time … but also looking for alternative ways to sort of give their mental health a break,” she said.

There’s a science to plants and their benefits, Terrell said. 

“They actually work to clean our air and remove negative ions from our space, and ultimately boost your mood,” Terrell explained. 

She continued, “We as human beings have an innate need to be close to nature.” 

Being away from nature, Terrell said, can lead to “lacking creativity, lacking productivity, maybe feeling chronic fatigue or anxiety.” 

Terrell said house plants help bring nature indoors, especially in urban places where big outdoor gardens are not always accessible. 

“Plants literally breath more life into your space,” she said. “Just adding that lush greenery is a beautiful pop of colour and liveliness.”