The importance of a strong consumer voice in a healthy society and healthy economy cannot be overstated. From aspects of ensuring a just society where the more vulnerable are not preyed upon, to ensuring the health and welfare of all Canadians, the need to give consumers a voice and protect them are critical.
With globalized production originating outside of Canadian oversight, Canadians need to be sure that products distributed in Canada meet or exceed Canadian standards. Proper accountability and trans- parency of our regulatory institutions related to telecommunications, energy, food, transportation etc. must be ensured. Overall, even economic competitiveness has been directly linked to having a strong consumer advocacy system within a country. This is why developments in Canada since the early 1990s are of grave concern and need to be redressed.
In 1993 the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs was dissolved with key statutes and programs subsumed under Industry Canada and others in Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Shortly after this the 1994-95 Program Review process resulted in major staff cuts to consumer sections of Industry Canada, which had been given the primary consumer mandate under the new department structure.
Since then the remaining programs of the much-reduced Office of Consumer Affairs (OCA) have not been resourced in a manner truly supportive of the interests of consumers being considered in legal, regulatory and enforcement processes of government. This alone should be of concern to those worried about consumer protection and consumer rights within Canada. Compounding this, however, has been the push towards increased deregulation and the general erosion of support for traditional consumer associations in Canada.
The role of independent, non-governmental consumer organizations is to inform decision-making, analyze proposed measures and protect consumer interests. Canada has lagged behind other OECD countries in the level of support for its consumer organizations. The OCA’s Contributions Program for Consumer and Non-Profit Organizations shows the contributions not keeping up with inflation and an overall smaller proportion going to traditional consumer groups. This is so dramatic that factoring in inflation and proportions to traditional consumer groups, we have seen a virtual halving of money available to these groups since 2000.
In contrast to most other developed countries, there is no core-funding of consumer groups in this country and there are not the economies of scale to allow consumer groups to draw from a large donor base. This is a serious problem because without strong regulation and oversights, including from consumer associations, Canadian consumers find themselves in an increasingly vulnerable position with few constructive avenues for engagement or redress. And increasingly government and business face consumer backlash against ill-conceived decisions, at enormous expense to taxpayers and shareholders.
Parliamentarians need to ensure that:
- Government takes concrete and progressive steps to increase the role of consumers and priority of consumer interests in decision-making, leading to the creation of a Minister of Consumer Affairs or a Minister of Consumer Protection within Cabinet.
- Government institutes a policy framework for consumer representation to guide decision-making within government.
- Government commits to better financing of Canadian consumer groups and associations, including secure and dedicated direct-funding arrangements using models in other OECD countries.
We believe that a few elected representatives working in a non-partisan manner, supported by consumer groups, could have a significant positive impact on the nature of consumer protection in this country.
If the measures outlined above were adopted Canada would become a world leader in regulating in the consumer interest. Consumer regulation and policy are a shared jurisdiction constitutionally and we believe strong leadership at the federal level will also show positive results at the provincial level.
Canadians deserve such strong leadership.