Opinion

Canadians can have better consumer protections. We just need to get angry: Neil Macdonald

The truly essential bedrock of a consumer movement is a citizenry with a willingness to vote its anger, and we don't seem to have the American capacity for outrage.

Canadian voters remained supine and indifferent as the consumer movement here withered

The truly essential bedrock of a consumer movement is a citizenry with a willingness to vote its anger, and we don't seem to have the American capacity for outrage. (Marie Helene Ratel/CBC)

A fellow I know in Ottawa makes a handsome living lobbying to ensure that American e-commerce remains prohibitively expensive to Canadian shoppers. He cornered me at a bar a while back, irritated that I'd quoted an official of the Consumers' Association of Canada (CAC), which wants our borders opened up.

"They represent nobody," he sneered.

The pathetic truth is that he was more or less correct.

The CAC, with its singular focus on what's good for ordinary consumers, was once a formidable force in both the Canadian marketplace and in politics.

Advising the government

It had a reserved seat on committees advising various government agencies. It was consulted by federal and provincial finance ministers preparing budgets, and when Ottawa introduced the GST, the Consumers' Association lobbied effectively to keep the rate as low and the tax as broadly based as possible.

The CAC had hundreds of volunteers nationwide, an office with a strong presence in Ottawa and published a magazine that reviewed and rated products and services.

"We had funding and we had Joe Public's memberships," says Peggy Ireland, a dogged advocate who's served on the CAC board for 18 years. "When you can walk into government office and say we represent 4.5 million consumers, they pay attention."

Today, all that is gone. The national office is closed. So is the magazine. Most of the volunteers are gone. And so is the influence.

Much of the influence of Consumers' Association of Canada has waned over the years. (Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

The fact is, the CAC was only ever nominally independent; it survived on government funding.

And about 25 years ago, says Ireland, "the funding got cut off. Whack….gone."

It began in the early '90s. By the time the Harper Conservatives arrived in 2006, it was over. "The Tories were allergic to hearing anything that didn't fit into their agenda," says Ireland, and that included the CAC.

Today, says Ireland, "all we have is a bully pulpit. We return media calls, and basically exist virtually."

There is the Consumers Council of Canada, a breakaway group that accepts industry funding (and which was praised that night by my antagonist at the bar), and a few government-funded groups in Quebec.

But, says Ireland, the federal government effectively allows industry to represent Canadian consumers nowadays, a wolf-as-shepherd situation if ever there was one.

Desire for change

Not that there isn't a public desire for consumer advocacy. A column I wrote recently about how Canadian consumers are routinely shorn and milked, and how they need a strong voice to deal with industry and government, provoked a tremendous response. The common theme in the thousands of comments and emails: How can a powerful consumer movement be re-created?

I put that question to Ira Rheingold, the Washington-based director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. Rheingold is just one of several loud and effective consumer voices in the U.S.

"You need a Ralph Nader," was his reply. "I wish I had a more brilliant answer, but you need a few leaders who are outraged."

Rheingold also advises against accepting any money from government or industry: "I realize that in Canada you pay very high taxes, and there is an expectation that government will do these things. But here, consumer groups have always been independent, and that makes us effective."

It helps, of course, that America has a much deeper tradition of private philanthropy.

George Soros, the left-leaning billionaire, provides a lot of money for public advocacy. John Paulson, one of the few hedge-fund sharpies who made billions shorting the residential mortgage industry in 2007, gave Rheingold $15 million to fund legal-aid groups fighting to keep low-income people in foreclosed properties.

It also helps that state attorneys-general love to crusade for consumers, and that Congress has over the years passed several laws enabling consumers to sue bad actors in industry: "We are litigious," says Rheingold. "We scream bloody murder. When we see unfairness, we take action."

Social media power

The other weapon at the disposal of smart advocates like Rheingold is social media.

"It's very organic. Once social media takes off, companies respond, because here, they are really very sensitive to public outcry, and there really is a cost to having a poor reputation."

Not so much in Canada.

The truly essential bedrock of a consumer movement is a citizenry with a willingness to vote its anger, and we don't seem to have the American capacity for outrage.

Canadian voters remained supine and indifferent as the consumer movement here withered, starved by successive governments. They in fact turned their backs on the CAC as it struggled.

The result is the system in which we live now: consumers kept fattened and separate in a government-run corral, available exclusively to our protected retailers and developers, and the oligopolies that run our banks and telecommunications industry.

Canadians pay higher taxes, higher fees and higher prices, and we do it without even much of a whimper, reasoning, often wrongheadedly, that it somehow makes our society more compassionate.

It's the Canadian way. But it doesn't have to be. Somewhere, there must be a few young Ralph Naders willing to stand up and energize a new movement, and unhook the milking machine. Maybe even knock some smug out of the lobbyists in Ottawa.

We just need to get angry enough.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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