The Liberal government has made it clear that a federal bailout package for the aviation industry will hinge on airlines refunding customers.
And as more Canadian MPs are learning, it’s a careless plan that will claw back millions of dollars in travel trade commissions – hard-earned income that, in some cases, travel agents earned as far back as 2019.
Unless the government includes a stipulation in their plan to protect commissions, the outcome of this will inevitably bankrupt travel businesses, destroy livelihoods and put a strain on hardworking families across the country.
The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) says that roughly $200 million dollars of commission is at risk of being recalled if the government doesn't implement protections for the trade.
It’s an urgent, serious and problematic situation that many politicians and policy makers haven't fully understood until recently, says the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA).
ACITA, a grassroots advocacy group that formed in June to support self-employed and home-based travel agents, has been meeting with MPs over Zoom on a regular basis to explain, personally, just how commission recalls have (and will continue to) impact their lives.
Many MPs, in the beginning, “had no idea of our pay structure, or the concern of commission recalls we are facing,” TravelOnly’s Nancy Wilson, one of ACITA leaders, told PAX recently.
Political support gains steam
That tone is starting to shift in Ottawa, however, as more MPs, thanks to advocacy efforts from within the trade, are standing up in Question Period to defend travel agents and explain, to the House of Commons, just why commission protections are necessary and important.
At the heart of these remarks are the stories MPs are hearing – real-life accounts, from travel agents, that put a face to the issue and clearly illustrate what’s at stake if a mass wave of commission recalls were to occur.
MP Candice Bergen of Portage-Lisgar in Manitoba hit the nail on the head last Thursday (Dec. 10), detailing a Zoom meeting she had with agents in November, where she learned about “20 mostly-female entrepreneurs who have worked hard, served their communities and their clients” who are having their commissions recalled and, in some cases, “taken directly from their bank accounts without their consent.”
MP Jag Sahota is also speaking out.
The politician representing Calgary Skyview in Alberta, on Dec. 13, argued that airlines are “turning their backs” on women (acknowledging that the majority of Canadian travel advisors are female) by “forcefully demanding” that they return their commissions.
“Their support has been invaluable”
It’s moments like these that inspire Calgary-based travel advisor Heidi Hurst of Heidiway Travel, an affiliate of Travel Professionals International (TPI), who has been navigating the waters of Canada’s political system to give agents a voice as the Liberal government devises a potential bailout for the airlines.
“I have been so encouraged by MP Sahota and MP Bergen, as well as the many other members who have been taking meetings with agents and keeping us top of mind in parliament,” Hurst told PAX in an email on Monday (Dec. 14). “They are striving to understand the unique and highly-problematic issue we face.”
“Their support has been invaluable to us during a very frightening and uncertain time.”
Hurst, with the support of MP Sahota, launched a federal petition on Nov. 30 to draw attention to the dire situation agents are facing with the hopes of gaining some public support.
The document, supported by nine points, urges the Government of Canada to consider travel agents as “external staffing for travel suppliers” and protect all previously-paid commissions.
As of Tuesday morning (Dec. 15), the petition had more than 4,315 signatures. (Click here to sign it).
While an effective lobbying tool, the petition, said Hurst, is about reminding people that travel agents are human beings that care about their clients but, under the current system, cannot continue working for free.
"It's about putting a live face to travel agents...We are your friend, a family member that’s helping you travel. We’re that corporate agent sitting in that office, making sure your retreat goes well. We are that email that gets you that e-ticket,” Hurst told PAX previously.
"We're asking for just a bit of humanity.”
Highlighting the “dinner table effect”
Despite blips of support in Ottawa, the Liberal government is “still not entirely hearing us,” said Hurst, referring to a moment in the House of Commons last week when MP Chris Bittle, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport, dodged a question about supporting commission protections for travel agents.
At MP Sahota’s urging, Hurst is now collecting individual stories from travel agents to highlight “the real dinner table effect” of repaying duly-earned commissions.
Recognizing that not everyone is comfortable with sharing their personal struggles, Hurst created a Google webform where agents across Canada can “let us know their exact situation without having to go public themselves.”
“MP Jag Sahota (Calgary, Skyview) wants to hear from you, tell your story and share with our Government how your business has been affected,” the online form reads. “They are looking for the truth, and to really get a better understanding of the household level impact you have personally experienced.”
The form asks questions like:
- “Have you used your CERB/CRB payments to repay commissions?”
- “If you had to repay your commissions due to a government bailout, would you be able to pay back the commission recalls? What would this do to you financially?”
- “Have you had to pay back your commissions due to an airline or partner cancelling their program?”
Click here to access the form.
“We are hoping that by continuing to have the conversations now, that the government won’t make this catastrophic error,” said Hurst. “They will not be able to say, ‘We didn’t know about this.’”
“We are simply asking for inclusion as a vital part of the industry that worked for Canadian travellers and travel suppliers before, during, and hopefully after, the pandemic.”
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