Ellen Roseman: What happened to Canada's consumer movement?

Ellen Roseman is a business writer at the Toronto Star.

As a journalist who has covered consumer issues for several decades, I often ask myself what happened to Canada's consumer movement. Is it dying? Can it be revived?


I remember when the Consumers' Association of Canada had hundreds of volunteers, dozens of staff members, published a magazine and pushed for legislative change. Today, only a few people are actively involved.


The Consumers Council of Canada is another small group, which broke off from the CAC because it wanted to get business and government funding for its work. I'd hardly call it an independent voice for consumers.


Grass-roots consumer activism is still alive in French-speaking Quebec, where we see groups fighting against cellphone companies' charges for premium text messages and furniture stores' buy-now-pay-later promotions. The province recently moved ahead of others in updating its consumer laws.


I'm thinking about the moribund state of organized consumerism in Canada because of what's going on in the United States. President Barack Obama has nominated Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor, to help shape the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.


The bureau, part of the U.S. government's Wall Street reform package, looked as if it wouldn't survive the compromises needed to get bills passed. But it did survive and will have a budget of $400 million US to help consumers fight unfair lending practices.


New York City, too, has a tradition of consumer activism. There's a new law being passed that will help those stuck waiting for cable TV service at home. Customers will be eligible for credit equal to a full month's bill if the technician doesn't arrive on time.


I'd like to see more squawking in Canada, where governments rarely come up with new laws as a result of customer complaints. The usual response is to ask industry groups to regulate themselves or to set up industry-funded mediators.


After the 2008 financial collapse, Ottawa promised to improve disclosure and consultation by credit card providers. It did deliver new rules, such as making providers ask permission to raise your credit limit before doing so.


Still, Canada's credit card reforms are less comprehensive than what was passed in the U.S. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty may have had less input from customers. Or perhaps he could safely ignore what customers were telling him, knowing that scandal wouldn't result from watered-down laws.


If we had a stronger consumer movement, we'd have more pressure on politicians to help alleviate the concerns and ease the daily lives of the voters who keep them in power.