Consider This
Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Conscience shopping best answer to Wal-Mart

First published: August 30, 2000

Wal-Mart’s proposal will be approved. Saving some last minute glitch, council will approve the 270,000-square foot power centre. And there are lessons for all residents in the county.

When the public meeting was finished on August 21, Wal-Mart was in the bag. Certainly, council voted unanimously to delay the decision, but its approval is a formality.

Two members of council have already made up their minds. Deputy Mayor Arnold McCurdy, the do-anything-for-business member of council, was ready to vote yes. He champions any business proposal, no matter what.

Councillor Bill MacDonald was ready to give the go ahead. He was very agitated when Councillor Peter Delanty suggested waiting for a report on the 23 presentations made by both sides that evening. MacDonald wanted to avoid any unnecessary delays.

While Councillor John Lindsay crowed loudly at the July meeting about the need for a full debate, mentioning his deep labour roots and social conscience, all his objections disappeared after the public meeting. In an interview afterwards, he said Horizons of Friendship, the non-government organization that called into question Wal-Mart’s sourcing practices in July, had its moment in the spotlight in August. Northumberland Labour Council didn’t send a representative to speak. There appears to be nothing preventing him from voting yes.

Councillor Bob Spooner mentioned last month that he was a Christian, and as such, he would vote against Wal-Mart if a strong case could be made. After the meeting, he was politically correct, saying he had received a lot of information that needed to be given consideration. But since Spooner is going to be running for deputy mayor in the upcoming municipal election this fall, he is highly unlikely to vote against a major development. He would not want to be labeled anti-business or seen as someone who did not want jobs for the community.

For those very same reasons, Delanty will vote to support Wal-Mart. With visions of running for mayor, Delanty cannot risk appearing to be against development. He also chaired one of the largest public meetings in this council’s term with more than 200 people packed into the hall. Politically, he’s all set.

Now that Wal-Mart will spend $60,000 on a downtown joint promotion, any critics from the mainstreet are virtually silenced. Councillors don’t need to worry.

Mayor Chalovich will not need to vote on any tiebreakers, since Councillor Dean Pepper is in a conflict of interest.

Despite any attempt to guess what is on council’s collective mind, Wal-Mart will go through simply because it has met all the requirements under the legislation. In our bureaucratic world that is all it takes. We see it this in so many council chambers across the county. Jump through the hoops and you’re done. Miss a hoop and you’re toast. Proposals can be rushed through or endlessly delayed. It takes no imagination or vision. It also means politicians can hide behind underneath the mounds of reports, studies and staff recommendations without having to think too hard or have any of their values challenged publicly. It doesn’t get any easier.

There is no room to debate the business ethics of a proposal. The system is also unable to accommodate any new or creative approaches, such as the last minute proposal by Keith Oliver to build the Wal-Mart on Covert Street. It could be a great idea, but nobody was in a position to give it a second thought.

The public meeting was a triumph. Opponents may not win the day, but they have pointed out the gross inadequacies of local planning and the lack economic strategy for area. Without an economic plan, it is very difficult to measure where Wal-Mart or any other proposed retailer or industry fits.

Horizons of Friendship raised our awareness of sweatshop labor and the business practices of large corporations that exploit third world workers. It made us all think. No matter what side of the issue we fall on, it was truly amazing to hear people discussing Wal-Mart in coffee shops and on street corners. No matter where you were, somebody would be expressing an opinion.

There is such value in this. At Horizons it is called global education; something the public often associated with people speaking in elementary or high schools. Unfortunately, our federal government does not fund global education very well. Here was a case that proves why it should.

What was also interesting is that no politicians from Port Hope or Colborne could bother to come and defend their community’s interest despite the fact that Wal-Mart will impact the entire region.

Which leave us with this point: it is really up to us what happens next. We have all come to a place in the life of our community when our actions are going to define our future. If we don’t like Wal-Mart (for whatever reason) then don’t shop there. If we want the mainstreets in Cobourg, Port Hope or Colborne to survive, then we must spend our money in those stores. Call it Conscious Shopping or maybe Conscience Shopping. Many people complain about the economic future in this county, but it is up to individuals to make the difference. So often people snipe about feeling powerless. But we have clear choices here. We can affect our own lives and the lives of people a half a world away. Maybe the politicians are not the only ones who need to start thinking outside the box (store).

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