Our community has a unique opportunity. It is not often when we can come together to challenge the business ethics of the largest retailer in the world. But a mixture of circumstances has opened this door for the residents of Northumberland.
Horizons of Friendship representative Scott Lamberton made a hurried presentation to Cobourg council on July 24 as politicians heard delegations regarding the Wal-Mart proposal for Strathy Road. It is going to be part of a regional big box retail centre serving most of Northumberland County. Delegates were suppose to discuss technical planning issues, but Lamberton spoke about the company’s use of imported clothing made in sweatshops in places like Burma and Central America. He gave a personal account of women he saw who had been beaten working for a company who supplies Wal-Mart. A coalition of social justice and labour groups gave Wal-Mart the Sweatshop Retailer of the Year Award last month in an effort to raise awareness, he said.
The presentation was unnerving both for the audience and politicians. Lamberton had moved the debate out of the comfortable confines of a normal planning public meeting into the taboo topic of business ethics.
But council agreed to hear more information about Wal-Mart’s business practices at the next public meeting scheduled for August 21. Councillor Peter Delanty has also agreed that if there is not enough time to hear all concerns and council feels it does not have enough information to make a good decision, an additional meeting will be scheduled for September. He believes the town’s official plan is not merely a technical document, but has a social component, as well. Unlike others, he felt this kind of discussion was appropriate.
Councillor John Lindsay jumped quickly on the podium to use it as a platform to espouse his labour roots in the community. He talked about our need to explore this issue. But others were not as comfortable.
Councillor Bill MacDonald dismissed it as being out of context, considering this was a planning meeting. But in a later interview he was not able to say when politicians should debate these important social issues in the context of a potential business in our community. He did not argue against the need for a discussion, but he also suggested it may be beyond the purview of a municipal council.
It is amazing how convenient it is when we are not suppose to talk about injustice or reprehensible business practices. Just bring us the jobs and prosperity at any cost. That’s Northumberland’s economic development slogan.
Wal-Mart agent Max LeMarchant also spoke at Cobourg council and tried to quickly dismiss any debate, arguing this proposal has been in front of our community since 1994. Any last minute concerns should be ignored because they represent a futile attempt to block a project which has every right to go ahead based on the company’s ability to meet all the planning and business requirements set out by the town.
Both men make interesting points. MacDonald is right in saying that there is little in terms of technical planning issues that would be addressed by a debate over the business practices of Wal-Mart. The Ontario Municipal Board, which hears planning appeals, would laugh at Cobourg council for trying to stop Wal-Mart on these grounds. LeMarchant is understandably frustrated because he wants to get on with his business.
Several times, politicians urged LeMarchant and project manager Christopher Wong to have a representative from Wal-Mart at the next public meeting. Wong said following the meeting he was confident someone from the company would be present and welcomed the opportunity to clear up any misinformation.
Horizons of Friendship will undoubtedly come prepared to make its case. But it should not be alone. The Northumberland Labour Council, social justice organizations and individual citizens from across the county need to be in that chamber, either prepared to speak or show their support. Wal-Mart and its supporters should also come laden with information, not just some puffy public relations pap.
Nobody on council denies the sale of clothing made in sweatshops is an important topic. Councillor Bob Spooner said, as a good Christian, he would vote against the Wal-Mart proposal, if the evidence was overwhelming. If Lindsay is true to his labour roots, he may also vote against. Others on council could benefit by taking a public stand.
While there is no legislative mandate for this kind of debate the opportunity for our community and for the company is incredible. Mayor Joan Chalovich acknowledged the importance of an open meeting to discuss the issues. She also doubts this will stymie the Wal-Mart proposal, but she said it can raise awareness.
By discussing this in a thorough, factual manner, there is a chance to come to a clear understanding on all sides. We will be able to make a statement about the type of business we want in Northumberland. And Wal-Mart can demonstrate in a very practical way its commitment to being a good corporate citizen in our community. This goes well beyond the fundraising and sport teams normally supported by corporations. We would be all well served in the process.