What happened to Canada’s consumer movement?

November 21 2010 by Ellen Roseman

The Consumers’ Association of Canada used to be a strong national voice. It’s now a shadow of its former self. The Consumers Council of Canada is desperately under-funded. Only in Quebec do consumer groups get support from the government for their activities.

In the United States, Consumers Union is still going strong after 75 years. Its magazine, Consumer Reports, somes out each month and even has a small Canada supplement. It recently acquired The Consumerist website, where shoppers fight back.

The U.S. has another well-respected group, The Consumer Federation of America, doing research, education and advocacy since 1968. I like its work on the need for a fiduciary standard for all financial advisers. (A fiduciary puts the client’s interests first.)

If you do a Google search for Canada’s consumer movement, you find my CBC commentary from last September, bemoaning the fact that organized lobby groups are so quiet. Thank goodness for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which does an impressive amount of research and representation of consumers at regulatory hearings.

I know that many Canadian consumers feel ignored and abused. They’re still waiting for rules to standardize mortgage penalties, fight spam and force companies to recall unsafe products. Without a strong lobby, the federal government can do nothing and get away with it.

What would it take to get Canadians to fight for the right to be treated fairly and respectfully? How can a nation of complacent consumers be turned into activists? Please let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, let me direct your attention to a blog called Fearless Revolution by a former U.S. advertising executive, Alex Bogusky, who wants to rewrite the famous consumer bill of rights drafted in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy.

It’s an ambitious project, but one that could reinvigorate the consumer movement.

14 comments

  1. Jason Rogers

    Nov 22 2010

    Honestly, I thought you already knew the answer, but if you didn’t – people are just too busy with other worries of every day life (bills, mortgages, work, making ends meet) to actually have an extra hour of time to fight back and cause any sort of revolt, join any sort of movement.

    Even worse – they are complacent. Lazy. Stuffed with junk food and terrible television brainwashing that a thought of leaving that comfort zone to “fight” for something that should be theirs in the first place never enters their sheeple little brains, unfortunately.

    And governments can either do nothing or keep taking away consumer rights for a long, long time, as it will take quite a bit of pushing to get people uncomfortable and actually pissed off, ready to do something about it, make a stand.

    Just look at the recent TSA patdown search issue in the States lately – 99% of the population obeys something that’s borderline sexual assault, and only a small, tiny minority is doing something about it and complaining. That’s how far “authorities” can go in stripping away people’s rights…

  2. NormaK

    Nov 22 2010

    What was the catalyst behind Ontario’s ECO FEE revolt? And, why were we same Ontarioans figuratively sedated as the HST rolled out?? What motivated British Columbian’s to unite and fight that province’s HST introduction? IMO, B.C. had both a central hub for the protest and a strong crusader with a vision, and it was a single-issue protest. Are there core emotions that ignite our spark?

    Maybe we’re not as complacent as you suggest, Ellen. Maybe there are closet frustrated consumers, such as me, who DO assert their rights but who feel isolated and unsupported. I’d LOVE to join a protest/consumer lobby group. (I’ve succesfully fought an auto company by contacting the CEO and getting two unwarranted penalties that had been imposed upon return of a leased vehicle and purchase of a new one, removed. I’ve succesfully fought an auto insurance company that, following my protest, adjusted the way its CSR’s classify accidents and restored my original star-rating. I’ve unsuccesfully fought my bank for applying unjustified fees.

    These efforts were time-consuming and frustrating. It would have been great to link with others fighting the same fight. Ellen, you and CBC’s Marketplace can’t solve everything for us.

  3. MO

    Nov 25 2010

    Call me a cynic, but it seems to me that many “movements” may start out with the most altruistic of intentions, but before long they become nothing more than huge bureaucracies with high administrative costs and bloated agendas.

    I have become wary of recruitment drives, and refuse to lend my name or donate funds to any new organizations, however worthy their cause, lest I be bombarded with unsollicited junk mail and nuisance calls.

    As I said, call me a cynic…..

    (and please take a minute to listen to the recorded “captcha” — it sounds like someone taking a stroll with a live cellphone in his pocket…)

  4. Steve Garganis

    Nov 25 2010

    Mortgage penalties strike a chord with me… Ellen, you have been kind enough to get involved and help out some of my clients with unjust prepayment penalties… I can’t tell you how much of a difference you have made in the lives of these families.

    For that, I thank you on behalf of them…and myself.

    Yes, when will the Federal Govt follow through with their February announcement to standardize mortgage prepayment penalties??

    Hey Canada, if you think I am talking about small financial institutions or other lenders, guess again… The BIG SIX banks are charging you 3 months’ interest penalty or the Interest Rate Differential (IRD) to get out of a fixed rate mortgage, whichever is GREATER… and those penalties have been 6, 8, 10 and sometimes 14 months’ interest in the past few years, as we have seen record low interest rates……

    WOW, just doesn’t quite cut it….more like Holy $%*#!!!!

    If you are looking for someone to sign up for a Consumer’s Association, I will gladly sign up. Perhaps we can use the power of the web to get consumers on board?

    Say the word, Ellen… give us a website to go to….. I will support and promote this to my clients and all my subscribers…

    Keep up the great work.

  5. JBe

    Nov 25 2010

    We’re complacent in Canada and too afraid (polite?) to fight back. Why do you think we have what is essentially a monopoly in telecom/cable? Two options for home phone and cable in Toronto? You would never see that in the United States.

    Like another poster, I do fight when I feel I’ve been wronged. I will not hesitate to write to a CEO when I feel it is warranted and I always end up with a satisfactory solution.

    Until Canadians stop saying “well, that’s just the way it is,” we’ll never have a consumers’ rights group. We saw potential with the Eco Fee debacle in Ontario and the HST fight in B.C., but it needs to go further than that.

    I hope I’ll see Canadian consumers stand up for themselves one day soon.

  6. Frances

    Nov 26 2010

    I would not have complained about the HST because I feel that it was the right way to go. Either we pay a consumption tax like the HST or we pay more in income tax because the government needs the money.

    I didn’t get a chance to complain about the eco fee. And too many people get into disagreements about contracts and money because they never bothered to learn something about the situation they were entering into.

    The Consumer’s Association of Canada never had enough money to be an effective voice for the public and they let themselves become too preachy.

    However, we certainly need more assistance in dealing with the cable and wireless companies; the CRTC is supposed to do that but they don’t. Why is there a system access fee? It is completely phony but the CRTC just ignores it.

  7. NormaK

    Nov 26 2010

    The reference, in my previous post, to the HST and Eco fee was merely to try to ascertain why those issues were catalysts. For purposes of this discussion, I’m neutral on both.

    What is it about some issues that spur us to act collectively and others don’t? What, specifically, makes us care enough to fight?

    Something sure needs to wake us up. I really don’t understand why we’re content to be used and abused by business, corporations, and governments.

    I DO know that each of us fighting individually is not going to drive change. Those of us who see consumer activism as important need to organize, I think, and the issue needs to somehow be made ‘sexy’. This type of grass roots movement helped elect the U.S President!

  8. Caelan

    Dec 3 2010

    Besides the The Consumer Federation of America, citizens may also go to their state’s Attorney General’s office to file complaints against unscrupulous companies. There are other powerful oganizations, like the FTC, that go to bat for consumers.

    I posted, elsewhere on this site, about my billing dispute with a U.S. phone company when I was living in the U.S. I filed a complaint with my state’s AG office, and within two weeks I had my money back and a written apology from the phone company.

    Can you imagine Canadians asking their provincial Solicitor General’s office to help them out? They would be soundly ignored (speaking from experience!).

  9. bria

    Dec 3 2010

    The harm to consumers caused by the absence of an effective consumer movement in Canada is best illustrated in the systemic abuse of consumers of auto insurance.

    The CAC couldn’t compete with the all but unlimited economic resources of the auto insurance lobbyists (Insurance Bureau of Canada). So a couple of years ago, it ceased to be involved in auto insurance issues.

    Since then, IBC press releases go unchallenged and are recycled as fact by many maintream newspapers. Nobody ever askes for the source of the auto insurance lobby’s data that is said to prove that too many corrupt treating doctors are colluding with too many faking motor vehicle accident victims.

    Yet this same unexamined assertion has been used time and again over the last decade to hike premiums and cut policy benefits.

    In no other context except for auto insurance are consumers required by law to purchase the product being sold. And in no other context are consumers as vulnerable to deceptive/unfair practices as are seriously injured accident victims, who have little choice but to hope their insurer will keep its promise to \treat\ them in good faith.

    For the last few months, the press has been recycling repeated stories about staged accidents and faked injuries. Fair enough. But, with few exceptions (Ellen being one), the press is loathe to cover the flip side of insurance fraud. The press is happy to believe lobbyists’ assertions, but seems reluctant to believe judges.

    So, for example, if a judge talks about an auto insurer deploying racist claims handling practices, this is deemed not newsworthy.

    If judges talk about auto insurers terminating policy benefits on the basis of unqualified medico-legal \expert\ opinions, this too is deemed not newsworthy.

    These sorts of unfair practices are thought, by some columnists, to be of little interest to to readers.

    Little wonder consumers of auto insurance have been succesfully duped by the insurance lobby into pointing fingers at each other, rather than looking more closely at the insurers’ truth claims.

    Every time the press runs an article about auto insurance fraud, most of the posters blame immigrants or fakers or treating physicians or plaintiff lawyers and so on, ad nauseam.

    Why doesn’t anybody ever ask the insurance lobby to produce sufficient cases/convictions to support the extent to which insurers say they are being defrauded?

    For example, in the last year, there must have been a hundred articles in which auto insurers blamed treatment providers for bilking the system by providing unnecessary treatment to faking MVA victims. So where are the charges? Where are the convictions?

    Insurers say they have a duty to their shareholders to treat claimants aggressively and with suspicion. Fair enough. But don’t they have a duty to their shareholders to go after the doctors they say are \corrupt\?

    Instead they leave the alleged \corrupt\ doctors in the system and instead, they hike premiums to cover their supposed losses.

    When it come to auto insurance, Canada is lacking an effective consumer advocate like the CAC once was, but it is also lacking a critical press willing to tell both sides of the auto insurance story.

  10. Zahid Jafry

    Dec 8 2010

    Bringing a consumer advocacy movement to Canada is an excellent point, and it is only you that consistently sheds light on the issue, Ms. Roseman.

    It actually reminds me of a blog entry I wrote over two years ago (in which I mentioned you) talking about consumer advocacy in Canada and the importance of starting grassroots movements in general.

    Of course, for me, I feel the retail investment industry is the place to start…

    Thursday, July 10, 2008

    The Power of the People

    Can consumer advocacy become a powerful special interest group? I certainly hope so. One of my favorite consumer advocates, Ellen Roseman, is one of the country’s few unwavering constants. With a blog and a column in the Toronto Star, she cunningly points out injustices being committed toward the consumer.

    While for the most part it is teaspoons out of an ocean, she builds awareness on whatever issue, and we’re all better for it, including the companies she outs.

    Now, Canadians have long been the victim of higher prices. With a relatively small population and oligopolies galore, we only have a few wireless companies to choose from, a few phone companies, a few Internet providers….and wait, it’s provided by all the same companies.

    Of course, such variables do put us in the position for higher prices compared to other consumers worldwide, and we, for the most part, have accepted it. Sure, we complain. But more so as a conversation piece, not so different from talk of the weather or celebrity gossip.

    Rarely has such a statement been proven wrong until recently.

    When Rogers won the license to carry Apple’s IPhone, diehard fans held their collective breaths. If a Canadian wanted an iPhone, they’d have little choice but to accept the fees charged.

    The fee schedules did finally come out and provoked wide-scale uproar. All of a sudden, Canadians, who had been the victim of higher prices for years, were furious.

    Passive Canadians, who had accepted their fate of higher cell phone plans, higher gas prices in an oil-rich country and a number of other things, were all of a sudden in a fury. Why? Why now?

    Of course, there can be several answers to this, but when people want what they cannot afford….

    Most famously, a site (http://www.ruinediphone.com/) was set up with the intention of showing Rogers the frustration felt by Canadians. With over 60,000 people signing the petition, the fervour fuelled countless newspaper articles and negative publicity for Rogers and, by extension, Apple.

    Reading this commentary myself, I thought Rogers would simply yawn at the headlines, ignore the petition and life would continue. They did have exclusive control over the Apple iPhone.

    Shockingly, they yielded. They adjusted the price points, and Canadians can now get an Apple iPhone at a value short of a rip-off.

    Why do I care? Why am I writing about this? It’s sort of this successful change from the grassroots…the bottom-up approach….that exemplifies probably the most untapped way to get change in this society.

    Why we haven’t more efficiently harnessed it remains beyond me. The Leafs are horrible? We question management’s commitment? Why, instead of just fan clubs, do we not just have fan unions, which can boycott entire strips of games?

    For those sports enthusiasts, remember when MLSE hired Mike Babcock as GM of the Raptors. A novice GM with no prior experience, we watched Vince Carter get traded away for nothing and a decent team reduced to subpar.

    It wasn’t until the fans stopped attending…and people stopped watching…that Babcock was fired and they decided to get a former Executive of the Year (now, a two-time Executive of the Year), Bryan Colangelo. The Raptors are a good team again.

    I do realize it seems like I’m harping and perhaps I am. However, if this approach can be applied to the Apple iPhone, then why can it not be applied to lobbying for lower MERs (Management Expense Ratio) or boycotting Principal Protected Notes and other investment products that sound sexy but provide little value to Canadians?

    If done successfully, such lobbying will save a Canadian family thousands of dollars and make Bay Street conscious of our educated collective.

    It cannot go past us that change from the bottom-up is possible in this country, and we have a responsibility to ourselves and future generations to adequately harness a power so far neglected.

  11. NormaK

    Dec 9 2010

    Bravo, Zahid and fellow posters. So, now, what are you and I and all other fed-up consumers going to do about it????????

  12. bria

    Dec 9 2010

    Hi NormaK,

    If you folks figure out a way us consumers can organize (via a new consumer web site perhaps?) count me in.

    bria

  13. Grace

    Apr 13 2011

    I want to share with you a story that happened at Woodbine Fantasy Fair in Toronto. I booked my 3 year old daughter’s birthday party there on Feb. 21, 2011.

    I was hugely disappointed, as the birthday girl and the 18 kids did not have an opportunity to enjoy themselves on the rides and attractions.

    I should have been notified in advance that Family Day, a statutory holiday in Ontario, would not be an appropriate day for a birthday function.

    In fact, I asked Customer Service on the day of booking about Family Day. At no time was I advised that the day would be busy and I should consider booking the function on another day.

    I don’t believe it is fair to make Party Room(s) available on a provincial holiday, if the guests CANNOT enjoy themselves.

    The place was overcrowded and I feared for the safety of my children and guests. If I was told of the enormous amount of people, then I may have considered moving the party during the week or the weekend.

    I have never seen so many people in my life. Not one of the 19 kids attending the party had an opportunity to go on the rides.

    My daughter did not enjoy herself at all. She was quite overwhelmed by the huge crowd.

    I think that if I was told in advance that Family Day would have been a zoo, then I would not have booked my daughter’s birthday party at Fantasy Fair. This was the first time I had a birthday party outside of my home. I now regret doing so!

    The overall event was not memorable at all.

    Besides booking a party room with an applicable rental fee, I also purchased 21 All Day passes for my guests for their enjoyment. It makes me wonder why make party room(s) available on Family Day if the guests cannot enjoy themselves.

    I was embarrassed and humiliated, especially when guests made comments such as “what a ripoff”, “boring”, “why did you have to pick a place like this”? I feel that I was partially taken advantage of, as this is not the level of service I have come to expect from Fantasy Fair.

    The event cost me over $300.

    On Feb. 25, 2011, I emailed the Park Manager of Woodbine Fantasy Fair expressing my disappointment. I said it would have been fair to have notified me in advance that Family Day would not be an appropriate day for a birthday function.

    In an email response on March 2, the Park Manager stated “Thank you for your feedback. At Fantasy Fair, it is always our intent to provide you with a ‘fun-tastic’ experience and I apologize that we did not meet your expectations for your birthday party experience.

    “As Feb. 21 is a provincial holiday, it was the destination of choice for many families across the GTA and surrounding areas. In addition, Fantasy Fair is very popular when it is cold outside as it was this past weekend. As a result, we reached 71% capacity, which may have been busier than you expected.

    “I can understand it must have been disappointing for your daughter to be overwhelmed and unable to ride the rides. If you would like a Family Day Pass for your daughter to have an opportunity to return and enjoy the rides, I’d be more than happy to send one to you”.

    On the same day, I emailed the Park Manager advising her that the Family Day Pass was NOT acceptable.

    I believe Fantasy Fair had a due diligence to notify guests of the possibility of being busier than normal, since I would NOT have booked my daughter’s 3rd birthday party on that day.

    I requested a partial refund of $112 for lost opportunity.

    On March 8, I emailed the General Manager of Woodbine Fantasy Fair, asking him to review the material and give me a partial refund of $112.

    I believe this was not an unreasonable request. To date, there has been no further communication and no refund has been issued.

    Please share this story with the citizens of Toronto, as I believe changes need to be made at Woodbine Fantasy Fair.

  14. Sarah

    Nov 9 2011

    “Honestly, I thought you already knew the answer, but if you didn’t – people are just too busy with other worries of every day life (bills, mortgages, work, making ends meet) to actually have an extra hour of time to fight back and cause any sort of revolt, join any sort of movement.

    “Even worse – they are complacent. Lazy. Stuffed with junk food and terrible television brainwashing, so that a thought of leaving that comfort zone to fight for something that should be theirs in the first place never enters their sheeple little brains, unfortunately.”

    I couldn’t agree more with what Jason said. It’s almost impossible to get people who are too busy with everyday life to care about an issue and fight for it. They would rather keep doing what they do and let others fight the fight for them to reap the benefits.