The Truth About Small-Business Grants in Canada

True government grants for small businesses are hard to find

Businessman harvesting money from a money tree
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Many small-business operators want government grants (i.e., funds provided to start or expand a qualifying small-to-medium-enterprise (SME) that do not need to be paid back). These grants are different from small-business loans, which do have to be paid back.

Unfortunately, the federal government prefers to invest in small businesses by operating loans programs, or assistance programs, that involve some sort of shared contribution, rather than in small-business grant programs.

Very Few Grants Are Actually Free Money

Free money is what most people are after when looking for a grant, especially if they need money to start a business. Unfortunately, almost all the government grants available have strings attached.

For instance, in many cases, small-business grants require a financial investment by the applicant. So, although the grant itself doesn't need to be paid back, in order to get the grant you have to put down your own money first. The funders see your investment as demonstrating a commitment. An investment of 10% to 50% is standard.

Job creation is another common expectation in order to receive a government grant to start a new business. For instance, one of the guidelines for the Northern Business Opportunity Program—Small-Business Startup Projects reads, "The proposed new business will operate on a full-time basis and result in job creation in Northern Ontario."

Government Grants Are Extremely Specific

The government's purpose in providing grants to businesses is to spur the development of particular businesses in particular places. They might, for instance, be focused on creating a biotech hub in Ontario or increasing the number of call centers in Nova Scotia.

This works if you're involved in any of the industries the government is interested in spurring on. However, most people who start businesses in Canada want to start small retail businesses such as bakeries, clothing stores, and bookshops. Additionally, small-business grants are often only available to individuals of a certain demographic who reside in a particular place.

Here are some examples of small-business grants in Canada:

Grants for Particular Places and People

  • Grants to Small Business Program Northwest Territories: Through the SEED Entrepreneur Support Program, All NWT Businesses are eligible for up to $25,000 per year to assist with costs associated with startup, capital assistance, operational support, market development, and product promotion.
  • Startup Grant for Aspiring Farmers in Quebec: Aspiring farmers between ages 18 and 40 who reside in Quebec and are just starting out in agriculture can apply for a grant of up to $50,000 for land improvement, equipment purchases, and more.
  • Northern Ontario Heritage Fund (NOHFC): Programs provide grants and loans for small- to medium-sized businesses based in Northern Ontario with the goal of creating employment. The fund operates several programs supporting business opportunities, expansion, internships, and more. Qualifications vary by program.

Grants for Particular Industries

Particular industries have the edge when it comes to small-business grants. For instance:

  • AgriMarketing—SME Component: SMEs that are part of the agriculture, agri-food, fish, or seafood sectors may be eligible for funding of up to $100,000. Eligible projects must aim to develop new export markets or further penetrate existing ones. To be eligible, your company must have annual sales of no more than $50 million, have completed market research, be export and market ready, and contribute a minimum of 50% of the project costs.
  • Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks (CENGN): Technical and financial support equivalent to between $50,000 and $100,000 is available to businesses and researchers "looking to accelerate the commercialization of your innovative communications technology, products, applications or services." Qualifying fields include software-defined network; network function virtualization; SD-WAN; internet of things/smart city applications; data center/cloud; network transport, applications, or mobility, and security.

Partial Canadian Small-Business Grant Programs

You will get some “free” money with the following grant programs, but you'll have to put up some of your own cash:

  • Toronto Enterprise Fund Catalyzing Grants: These grants are aimed at social enterprises that create training and employment opportunities for those struggling to get access to the labor market. The program offers grants of $5,000-$10,000 to enterprises with strong social ideas to enable them to analyze and test the market.
  • Bioenterprise Seed Funding Program: Businesses in the agriculture, agri-food, sustainable, or environmental technology sectors in southern Ontario could access up to $30,000 in seed funding as well as coaching and mentorship support services. Applicants must match the grant with their own financial contributions.
  • Mtl Inc.: This Montreal-based organization supports "young and innovative businesses with strong growth potential" and provides a grant covering up to $30,000 in startup costs. Grants are reserved for Canadian citizens or permanent residents aged 18-35 who reside in Montreal and operate on the Island of Montreal or in the South Shore.

The Best Canadian Small-Business Grants of All

While small-business grants with no strings attached are few and far between, even better financial assistance is available, in the form of programs.

But there's one caveat. You must be willing to make the required contribution (often sweat equity) and demonstrate your level of commitment. If you do that, these programs offer small-business funding as well as training and mentoring, which can make the difference between success and failure.

  • Self-Employment Program: What makes this program so outstanding is the level of support provided. Participants not only get help in creating a business plan, but also receive income support for up to a year while they do it. Programs are usually province-specific (as is the linked example from Alberta). You have to be eligible for Employment Insurance to apply.
  • Summer Company: Students in Ontario aged 15 to 29 can receive small-business grants (i.e, awards) of up to $3,000 as well as hands-on entrepreneur training and support to run their own summer businesses. Applicants must not be eligible for other self-employment programs, such as the Ontario self-employment benefit.

These are just a few examples of some of the grant programs available to Canadian small businesses. Explore more options on the Canadian government's website. And remember, just because you don't have to pay it back, doesn't mean it's free.