Wal-Mart first salvo in battle for rural identity

First published:
April 11, 2001

As the debate over Wal-Mart in Northumberland County continues to be hashed out in the pages of newspapers, over coffee in doughnut shops and just about everywhere else people come to gather, another dark cloud is appearing on our horizon.

One of the things we all value highly is the ability to determine our destiny here at home in Northumberland. But imagine if that was taken away. Not by the province or the federal government but by an even larger ruling body.

What if, Cobourg council was not allowed to create planning bylaws to control whether or not a huge power store is built or demand market studies or the host of other items needed to open a business in our area.

Now stretch your imagination a bit further and think about what it would be like if there were no Ontario Municipal Board to act as an arbitrator for appeals (despite what you may think about the recent decisions).

Stick with me. Now contemplate what it would be like if Wal-Mart or any other American retail giant wanted to come into our community and if we did anything to oppose it, we would be stopped because nothing could impede trade. There would be no trade barriers.

Not only would this apply to retail, but it would also apply to our hospitals, our schools and – get ready for this – our water.

Remember the lobbying Northumberland farmers did to encourage Quaker Oats to reopen its processing plant in Peterborough a few months ago. That would be crushed. Why? Because it could be deemed an unfair trade practice.

Opponents are making these arguments against the General Agreement on Trade  in Services (GATS). This is all part of the trade discussions being led under the umbrella of the World Trade Organization (WTO), who is set to meet in Quebec City, as part of the Summit of the Americas later this month. But before dismissing this as some harebrained rant against free enterprise and open trade, it deserves a closer look.

The Council of Canadians, who have a local chapter in Northumberland, are working very hard to get 50 municipalities to pass resolutions opposing the trade in services agreements because it will have a massive impact on local municipal councils. In fact, some county representatives and officials from Port Hope and Cobourg, heard a deputation on this a few weeks ago.

Normally, municipal leaders don’t get involved in global issues and rightfully so. This stuff is usually far beyond their mandate. But the arguments from the Council of Canadians should get a full airing in local chambers from Campbellford to Colborne and Brighton to Port Hope.

The list of municipal areas of concern is huge. Zoning bylaws, building permits and other regulations are being threatened.  The Canadian Construction Industry is raising these concerns, too.

American firms would get access to supply everything from taxi service to garbage disposal. U.S.-based companies could run our harbour, railway station, arenas, ball diamonds and the list goes on. If a company wanted to, it could force us to let them bid on the concession stands in Victoria Park or Memorial Park.

But who would want to?

No doubt the rhetoric is really flying when these arguments are made. And there are plenty of people who are travelling from Northumberland to Quebec City to help make the point that this is not the way they want Canada to negotiate. But despite how insane it all appears, it is not completely groundless, either. And it deserves our attention to ensure we are not going to be seriously hurt.

However, we should not get carried away too far in one direction on this debate. Export is a very important aspect to our local economy. Thirty-six of 58 companies in Cobourg alone trade outside the country. Port Hope is the same. Extend that to firms across the county and it is not hard to see that to cut off all trade with our friends to the south would be very damaging here in our own backyard. If General Motors were to close so cars could be made in Mexico rather than Canada,  the economic impact would be immediate. The same would hold true for Kraft-General Foods, G.E. Plastics, Cameco, Textron, among others, if they shut down were closed.

One of the things the Wal-Mart debate brought to light over the past few months is the fact that we cannot treat ourselves in isolation any more. Questions over the use of sweatshop labour by the retail giant made us think for a moment if other clothing retailers carried similar items. And what about foreign-made running shoes and computers and telephones, which are sold by our local retailers.

One only has to look in the fresh food section of any county grocery store to realize how dependent we are on trade. There are grapes from Chile, strawberries from the United States, along with lettuce, mangoes, bananas and the list goes on one more time.

And, to top it all off, we want this stuff. And, nobody is prepared to pay a premium on any of it.

We cannot stick our collective head in the sand any longer. It must begin with our civic leaders. Before April 20, all municipal councils should debate the resolution from the Council of Canadians and let us know where they stand. As a community, we should listen and learn more. One can visit the Council of Canadians’ web site to get more information. And the World Trade Organization has a web site with lots of documentation, as well. In the meantime, this topic should not go away. Wal-Mart was the opening salvo. The battle has only just begun.

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