The official government response to a public petition supporting a national consumer advocate avoided mentioning the advocate, its rationale or the reasons for its demise, and instead simply re-iterated a few long-standing consumer protection actions.
A second petition calling for the government to follow through on its commitment to establish a Canadian Consumer Advocate was presented to the House of Commons earlier this year. The petition made many of the same points as a 2021 e-petition which received more than 500 signatures of support from across Canada, but was not responded to because of the 2021 election call.
The 2023 petition noted Canadians and consumer organizations “continue to believe that federal government attention to protecting consumers has eroded over the past several decades and consumers’ voices are absent when important policy, regulatory and legislative decisions are made.” It called upon the government “to continue with their previous initiative to establish an independent Canadian Consumer Advocate answerable to Parliament to advance consumer interests and work with civil society to represent the consumer voice.”
The response under the signature of Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne does not mention the Advocate position sought in the petition – the word advocate does not appear in his response. Nor does the response touch on the consumer voice in policy decisions, or any of the ‘whole of government’ policies considered by the government as the idea moved from mandate letter to implementation between 2019 and 2021.
The government has not provided any insight into why the Consumer Advocate office – as first imagined or with a wider mandate – was abandoned in post-election mandate letters. Instead, Champagne’s response focused on specific measures as examples of the government’s focus “to make life more affordable for Canadians and ensure greater consumer protection.”
The response includes the commitment to a single external complaints body for banks, stronger air passenger rights and efforts to crack down on junk fees.
Champagne references the most recent mandate letter’s directives to generally address competition and advance the digital charter, and other actions such as updates to the Competition Act and the introduction of the Consumer Hub, an online information resource.
Champagne’s own letter references that the Hub is visited 500 times each month, a remarkably low number that may suggest consumers don’t know about it and commonly aren’t finding it when they search for help in preparing for making decisions or dealing with problems.
Efforts to streamline banking complaints and improve air passenger rights pre-date the advocate announcement. The Competition Bureau certainly has a greater profile, but its effectiveness in providing consumer protection is subject to debate. Notably, it has effectively abandoned three of the four statutes it was created to protect, Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, Textile Labelling Act and Precious Metals Marking Act, significantly reducing protection for Canadian consumers in those areas.
Consumers Council of Canada supported the Canadian Consumer Advocate position when it was first outlined. The Council’s discussion paper Time for a Real Federal Consumer Advocate recommended an expanded role as the consumer voice within the federal government, with a sole function to argue for consumers, advance their needs, and better integrate consumer needs with government and agency decision making.