The guiding principle of the Competition Bureau proclaims the overriding power of the well-meant abstraction: Competition is good.
But somewhere in the unbridgeable distance between the bureau’s office block in Gatineau, Que., and the horse-drawn Mennonite buggies clip-clopping down the busy main street of Elmira, Ont., this benevolent concept has taken a troubling turn.
Two months ago, as a condition of approval for Loblaw Companies’ acquisition of the Shoppers Drug Mart chain, the Competition Bureau ordered Loblaw to sell off 18 retail stores and nine in-store pharmacies so the company would not gain undue control of the local drugstore trade.
The ruling affected under-served small towns exclusively, and the list of forced divestitures resonates with an almost poetic sense of Canadian locale: Citizens in Sechelt. B.C., Barrington Passage and Tantallon, N.S., Innisfail, Alta., Montague, PEI, Dalhousie, N.B., and Blenheim, Ont., suddenly found themselves chosen to have their shopping landscape altered because a big-business merger had been fine-tuned for the greater good.
In Elmira, a town of 10,500 where the biggest event of the year is the annual maple-syrup festival and the local showpiece is Ontario’s last wooden covered bridge, the axe fell quite surprisingly on Paul and Adèle’s No Frills. The bustling discount supermarket features horse-and-buggy parking for Old Order Mennonites who prize the store both for its bargain prices and a location that lets them right-turn into the parking lot without having to steer their slow-moving buggies across the mad rush of oncoming traffic.
“The people here in Elmira ended up being horse-traded,” says resident Roy Weber. “We’re a pawn in a deal between Loblaws and the Competition Bureau that doesn’t take common sense into consideration. It’s incredible.”
For most places that are losing a store by federal fiat, the decision has carried the force of inevitability. But the people of Elmira and surrounding Woolwich Township refused to go quietly.
“We feel that the bureau should mind its own business and let customers decide where they want to shop,” says Brian McHugh, who owns a photo shop in downtown Elmira and has organized a petition of protest that now has 2,600 names. “And they only want Paul and Adèle’s No Frills.”
While the bureau requires Loblaw to sell the store to what it describes as an “effective competitor,” the supermarket business is now so concentrated in Canada that there are few likely buyers. Sobeys already operates an upscale Foodland outlet across the road, so it’s out of the running. The closest equivalent to No Frills is Metro’s Food Basics discount store, but Elmira’s protesters have organized an online campaign to let Metro know it’s not welcome. They believe they shouldn’t be forced to trade brands, break their shopping habit and ditch Paul and Adèle Henderson’s supermarket just because of a mandate formulated without any sign of local consultation.
“It’s like they’re saying, you can’t buy Levi’s any more, you’re all going to have to buy Wranglers,” says Todd Cowan, mayor of the Township of Woolwich. “Well, wait a minute, that’s not the same. But the Competition Bureau can handily answer, ‘Well, yeah, but it’s still blue jeans.’”
The bureau’s responsibility is to create the conditions for an efficient economy while providing consumers with competitive prices and a range of product choices. From this perspective, the forced sale makes perfect sense: The post-merger Loblaw would have had too much control over the pricing of pharmacy and drugstore goods in Elmira, since it now owns a nearby Shoppers Drug Mart that used to compete both with No Frills’ in-store pharmacy and its broader product line of personal-care products and packaged foods.
“The Bureau is not requiring that the No Frills in Elmira be closed,” said assistant deputy commissioner Anthony Durocher in an e-mail statement. “On the contrary, the sale of that store to an effective competitor will ensure that it remains open and competing.”
Except that it won’t. The bureau sees the ongoing continuity of a generalized entity known as a store – and declares that an economic victory. In this spirit of equanimity, a new sign has been posted at the No Frills entranceway: “Rest assured. A grocery store will remain at this location to suit your needs.”
But the people of Elmira recognize that “a grocery store” is not the same as the particular No Frills they know and love. This ambiguous discrepancy in language underlines the difference between decision-makers in Ottawa-Gatineau and the small town they are infuriating with their double-speak.
“The word that comes to mind is Orwellian,” says Elmira resident Sebastian Siebel-Achenbach, a history instructor at the University of Waterloo. “Elmira is going to lose a discount grocery store because there is the potential that prices for medications and drugstore merchandise might increase. This just sounds absurd to many residents of this town because there is no proportionality.”
If small-town dissatisfaction with faraway governments is on the rise, it’s often because of this feeling that decision makers aren’t attuned to everyday human experiences – like caring for a large family on a small budget, a common situation for the Mennonite homemakers who range across the No Frills aisles in their black shawls and prayer caps while their menfolk and whinnying horses wait outside.
“The problem here,” says Loren King, a professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, “is that bureaucracies are focused on abstract ideas: This is what fair competition will be, this is how it’s got to be implemented. And the way it’s implemented has more to do with how bureaucracies work than trying to make the decision sensitive to the town.”
Elmira’s decision to fight back is a sign of just how heightened its small-town sensitivities have become. Change is in the air as the onetime hub for the local farming community is turning into a dormitory suburb for nearby Waterloo – a new 1,200-home development called Country Club Estates can’t help but alter the town’s tricky balancing act between enduring past and restless present. A constant flow of heavy trucks speeds through a once-tranquil downtown, rattling past the historic Carnegie Library and the picturesque bandshell, leaving precious little room for the horses making their slow way to market.
As urbanization encroaches on an older way of life, the order to sell a supermarket is another sign that a community’s destiny may be beyond its control.
“The unknown is scary to a lot of people,” Mr. Cowan says. “When you have the government at the federal level saying, ‘Just trust us, it’s all going to be fine,’ yeah, we’re a little bit leery of that one.” The leeriness with power’s custodians is endemic in Elmira, and for a very good historical reason. Agent Orange, the Vietnam War defoliant of choice, was manufactured in a chemical factory bordering the winding Canagagigue Creek – the local aquifer is still contaminated, local wells were ordered closed, and water is now piped in from Waterloo.
Much of the Competition Bureau’s work is done in secret, for reasons of business confidentiality, and the timetable for the No Frills closure and sale has been intentionally left vague to prevent Loblaw’s rivals from lowballing a bid at the deadline stage. Meanwhile, Paul and Adèle Henderson of No Frills are not able speak out about their own uncertain future. “Paul and Adèle have to stay neutral,” Mr. McHugh says. “The Competition Bureau has a monitor in place who makes sure that they don’t do anything political to save the store.”
This lack of openness makes the residents of Elmira feel even more disconnected as they’re told to fit themselves into the grand theories of a robust market economy. And the bureau hasn’t exactly made things better with its remote bureaucratic style, which treats the events in Elmira and elsewhere as a fait accompli delivered from on high.
“Don’t give us the clouded reassurance that everything will work out,” Mr. Weber says. “The bureau says there’s nothing to worry about. But they can’t guarantee what business does.”