Ottawa’s Michael Wood a leader in the fight for Canadian small businesses during COVID-19

By Dani-Elle Dubé

Ottawa business owner Michael Wood wouldn’t call himself an influencer — in fact, he kind of laughs at the label — but there’s no doubt he’s had at least some effect on the lives of almost every Ontarian during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Think of Wood as the man behind the curtain — a representative for a collective voice of small business owners across all industries in Ontario that might not know where to start when it comes to navigating the political landscape during a tumultuous time for their businesses. 

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Michael Wood in the Byward Market in November 2020. (Photo/Dani-Elle Dubé)

But here’s the thing: Wood — a small business owner, himself — didn’t know either.

He’s been learning as he goes, but has the charisma to grab the attention of all the right politicians and has time he’s willing to spare, to not only keep his business (Ottawa Special Events) afloat, but his fellow entrepreneurs’ as well. 

Eye of the tiger

It started with a conversation with City of Ottawa Councillor Keith Egli, after Wood noticed his business had dropped 92 per cent from last year. 

He knew something had to be done if his business and others were going to survive the first, and then thrive in the second wave of the pandemic.

“We were walking into our ramp-up season, which included trade shows and the Tulip Festival, etc., so I called Keith Egli  — because we had some stock in some city buildings — and I said, ‘Keith, my concern right now is that the city’s about to shut down, if not the entire country, what do I do?’”

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Byward Market in November 2020. (Photo/Dani-Elle Dubé)

Egli told him to reach out to his local MP and MPP, which he did. 

It was mid-March when Wood put his fingers to the keyboard and wrote to every MPP (twice, in fact) and every MP. The more his wheels squeaked, the more grease he got and the next thing he knew, he was meeting with politicians at all levels of government on every side. 

His inbox was flooded with responses from politicians, from various levels of government and parties, and he had meetings lined up. 

But he realized he wasn’t the only one in this position, so why not take a few others along for the ride? 

As he puts it, “It wasn’t fair for him to do this alone.”

“I have a responsibility to include everybody,” Wood said. “It’s not just Mike Wood that has this problem, there are [other businesses]. We’re stronger together — and we’re still stronger together and we’re a united voice.” 

So to get a better understanding of what other business owners were going through, Wood started a Facebook group, which has since grown to have thousands of followers across the country. 

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The group talks issues they face, concerns and solutions to discuss with government and the exchange of ideas, etc. 

He’d then bring up those exact points to the politicians who had agreed to meet with him in hopes to come up with solutions.

Because Wood, as he puts it, is a “very solution-based” person in his approaches. 

“I know this is going to sound like a canned response, but I don’t see myself as an influencer,” he said. “I look at myself from a standpoint of trying to gain more influence and I’m trying to gain more government ear to listen to what’s happening.”

His influence

But Wood has more influence than he thinks. 

Ottawa Public Health and Ottawa's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches have reached out to him to get his input on how he thinks they could avoid another shutdown during the pandemic. 

He’s also had his hand in extending Canada’s rent program for business owners. 

Originally, the program was supposed to end July 1 — but because of Wood’s involvement and input, the Trudeau Liberals decided to extend it. 

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“I chaired the finance committee on this round table,” Wood explained. “I do believe that I was at least one voice in that conversation to have that happen.”

He’s also had a hand in the revision of the Ontario energy board’s policies. The original policy said that a business had to be two months in arrears in order to get help, but Wood went to the minister of energy and also had a hand in making some changes. 

Welcome to the juggle

And he does all this while holding down a position as a professor at Algonquin College, where he teaches intro to music, intro industry arts in the general arts and science department, music business and entertainment marketing, among a couple of others. 

If the 44-year-old has five minutes, he’ll spare it for you. 

A native of Ottawa, Wood first wanted to be a marine biologist. He had a fascination with sharks. 

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Michael Wood in November 2020. (Photo/Dani-Elle Dubé)

But as he entered his teens, he discovered his love for all things rock music and tried his hand out as a musician. He had a pretty good go at it, too — touring Canada and United States. It even led him to be signed with Warner Brothers where he worked alongside 90s-DJ and radio personality Casey Kasem and toured with a seemingly endless list of bands.

It eventually also led him to meet one of his idols, Guns n’ Roses guitarist Slash, in 1999.

The two met by chance at a bar at the famous Rainbow Bar and Grill in Los Angeles on the Sunset Strip, where they had a few drinks together. At one point in the night, Wood got up the courage to ask Slash if he could get his autograph for his son.

When Slash asked for his son’s name, Wood froze before saying, “Mike, Jr.”

“Do you just want me to make it out to Mike?”

“Yes, please.”

(As implied, in reality, Wood didn’t have any children.)

“It’s a fun little story,” Mike said reminiscing over Zoom, holding up the framed autographed napkin to the camera. 

And somewhere in between, he studied travel and tourism at Algonquin. 

Coming home 

It wasn’t too long after that encounter that Wood decided to move back to Ottawa.

His mother had been fighting cancer, but his parents had been keeping it a secret as not to worry him while away.

His dreams of rocking out to on stage were put on hold to come home to family — and that’s when he found his position as a professor at Algonquin College, where’s he’s been for the past 13 years. 

During that time, Wood was speaking with his friend Peter Gilroy with whom he went into business together, opening up Ottawa Special Events — an audio, visual and event production rental equipment company. 

He never thought it was something he’d do as a career, but he admits he's always been business-minded. 

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Byward Market in November 2020. (Photo/Dani-Elle Dubé)

“Even when I was a little kid — about six or seven years old — I started a little company called Leaf Busters because Ghostbusters was big at the time,” Wood recalled. “My mom printed off flyers for me and I’d go door to door, saying I’d rake leaves for five bucks. I can’t believe it was five bucks. Then I’d recruit friends to come with me and pay them $3 to work with me to rake up all of these leaves.”

Business at Ottawa Special Events was thriving in no time, once their doors opened, and the guys could barely keep up with demand — everything from weddings to conventions and anything in between. 

And from there, almost every minute of Wood’s life was accounted for, that is until COVID firmly planted itself in Ottawa, wreaking havoc on entrepreneurs, not only in Canada’s capital, but across the province, country and globe. 

The COVID fight

If Wood wanted his business to survive the pandemic, he knew he had to fight for it.

Name a politician from any level, no matter the political affiliation, and Wood has most likely already met with them, or is at least scheduled for a sit-down.

“I was told, ‘The reason people are meeting with you is because you’re fair, balanced, polite and solution-based,’” Wood recalled. “There is no right answer on how to do this. People criticize — and if this was our 10th pandemic in the last 15 years, then I’d maybe be less forgiving, empathetic and understanding but the thing is, Doug Ford and Mike Wood and [everybody], we’re all going through this for the first time. We have no playbook to pull from.”

All of that perseverance eventually lead to Wood speaking at Queen’s Park (via Zoom) and in the House of Commons on a few occasions. 

“I’m a very driven individual,” Wood said. “I’m very goal-orientated. If I set a target on you, we’ll meet. Look — it happened with Slash in 1999.”

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Byward Market in November 2020. (Photo/Dani-Elle Dubé)

But the more his name got out there, the bigger his profile became and the more feedback he got from the public. 

Not all of it was pretty.

It’s something he expected from strangers, he said, but not from the people he knew, and it started to become a hard pill to swallow the closer it hit home. He said some people have gone as far as to accuse him of not doing enough for small businesses.

What's next

Wood has decided to take a break from the spotlight for now, but he’ll still continue his work, he said — just with a lower profile for a while.

“I understand my public profile has risen,” Wood said. “But it encourages me… I don’t think I’ve been discouraged along the way, but I have been frustrated. I’ve done absolutely everything that I can.”

Wood does not get paid for what he does fighting for small businesses, he stresses — everything he’s doing and has done is on a volunteer basis.

Next up for Wood, is a meeting with Premier Doug Ford’s parliamentary assistant, then to tackle the no fault bankruptcy situation businesses are battling with banks. 

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Byward Market in November 2020. (Photo/Dani-Elle Dubé)

(When businesses took out loans pre-COVID, they had personal guarantees on their loans. So if their business was to close, business owners would pay penalties and may even lose their homes as well. Wood wants to make sure that people won’t be held personally liable should their business close in these times because it is through no fault of their own, he says.)

It’s been a learning process and a challenge at times, Wood says, but it’s one he wouldn’t take back. 

“It’s been a battle, but it’s been worth every second,” Wood said. 

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