Amherst native Andrew Cameron moved away from his hometown in 1999, and when he returned in 2015, while the town appeared similar to the town he grew up in and remembered, it felt different. What happened?
“Monopolies,” says Cameron.
Earlier this year, in its 2022 budget, the federal government promised it would “consult broadly on the role and functioning of the Competition Act and its enforcement regime.” Since then, Cameron has been eagerly waiting for the review to start.
Today is the day.
The Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development has announced that public consultation is starting on Nov. 17, 2022. The review will include “roundtable discussions with a broad cross-section of Canadians to canvass views on how best to modernize Canada’s competition enforcement regime,” and the public can make submissions until Feb. 27 next year.
The lack of competition in the country is very much on people’s minds lately, with the Competition Bureau of Canada trying to block a merger of telecom giants Rogers and Shaw, and more recently looking at grocery store competition in Canada.
But Cameron says it is not nearly enough. He points out that once upon a time Canada had very strong anti-competition laws and enforcement, which is described in great detail in a 1958 article by Peter C. Newman in Macleans Magazine, called “Trade secrets of the combines detectives.”
Newman’s article, more than six decades old, notes that, “Price-fixers may fleece you on anything from bread to eyeglasses.” The difference is that back in the 1950s, according to Newman, “Sooner or later they lock horns with Ottawa’s combines investigators,” and the government investigators, whom Newman called “big-business sleuths,” would open up two investigations a week. Wrote Newman:
A paradox of our economic system is that the very individuals who express the most vocal lip service to free enterprise often try to defeat its basic philosophy of unrestricted competition by agreeing on prices and sales methods with their rivals. Canada since 1889 has been fighting such combines with one of the world’s strictest anti-monopoly laws.
That was a long time ago, but Cameron believes Canada can do the same again, and strengthen competition legislation that has been severely weakened in the past half century.
Cameron is co-founder of the Canadian Anti-Monopoly Project (CAMP), which he, Robin Shaban and Keldon Bester launched in August 2022. CAMP describes itself as a “think tank dedicated to addressing the issues caused by monopoly power in Canada.” It says it “assists individuals and organizations navigating and reforming Canadian competition law, and produces research and policy proposals to make Canada’s economy more fair, free, and democratic.”
Cameron also hosts a podcast called “Monopolies killed my hometown,” in which he “explores how the changes in our Canadian competition laws in the 1980s led to the decline of small towns and small businesses.” The first episode traces the path he says led him to “identify that Monopolies and Corporate Consolidation are the root cause behind the decline” in his hometown in northern Nova Scotia.
The Halifax Examiner spoke with Cameron recently about competition — and the lack of it — in his hometown and in all of Canada. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Halifax Examiner (HE): You say that the Amherst you left and the one you came back to were not the same. What do you mean by that?
Andrew Cameron (AC): When I was growing up in Amherst, downtown was full of stores and restaurants, and the two malls were full of a large number of independent and locally-owned stores. There were a number of neighbourhood grocery/ butcher stores. We had three medium-sized elementary schools in town, and four small ones outside of town. You could walk into a store, look at the name above the door, and see that same person in the store. We had large locally-owned manufacturing businesses. We had the Amherst Daily News and CKDH radio station, with enough businesses to buy enough advertising to support them.
I graduated in 1999, and lived in Halifax, Banff, Japan, Maine, and Yarmouth before returning home in 2015. Something just felt off for the longest time, but I couldn’t identify it. Finally I realized the town looked the same, but the spirit and the soul of the community was gone. The independent stores were gone — not completely, but mostly they were gone. The large manufacturing businesses that were locally owned — gone. The independent insurance brokerages — gone, replaced by chains. All the elementary schools were consolidated into two in town and one outside. CKDH and the Amherst Daily News — gone. Without the radio station and the newspaper, we lost the ability for our community to talk to ourselves. We’re dependent on Facebook to know what’s happening in our community, and we can’t have a reasonable discussion about our challenges and problems on social media.
We lost our business community, which was replaced by monopolies and large corporations. If the town of Amherst fails, Walmart packs up and goes somewhere else. Amazon does not care about Amherst at all. We lost the people who needed and wanted Amherst to thrive. We lost the people that could make shit happen. We lost our ability to make decisions for our community. We lost our sense of hope.
I also know that Amherst has always had its problems, especially for minorities, people in the LGBTQ+ communities, and people experiencing poverty. But I believe we have to learn from that and make our community stronger and more welcoming and inclusive for everyone.
And it’s not just Amherst, which is doing relatively well in Cumberland County. Other communities? The town of Springhill — gone. The town of Parrsboro — gone. They’ve gone from a mayor and town council, to having one representative on the Municipal Council. Oxford? It’s falling apart, and will have to dissolve itself soon.
HE: How did you come to be a co-founder of the Canadian Anti-Monopoly Project?
AC: In the United States, anti-monopoly organizations have been around for years. There is the Open Markets Institute and the Institute of Local Self-Reliance. These organizations have been pushing for regulatory change to help protect small businesses, small towns, and small communities. But there was a gap in Canada for an anti-monopoly organization.
That’s how I came into the Canadian Anti-Monopoly Project (CAMP) with the two other co-founders, Robin Shaban and Keldon Bester. I connected with them online, and they asked me to join in and help create CAMP about six months ago. The discussion around competition policy in Canada is very dominated by lawyers and economists, as if it’s for the experts only. It’s definitely not, because it impacts everyone. But those experts have, let’s say, a strong vested interest in things staying the same. So, there is need for voices that say we need to change things. We need to do things differently.
HE: In what way?
AC: We did a weird thing in Canada that started in the 1960s. We always felt that we needed to let Canadian companies merge and get big so they could compete internationally. And then in the 1970s, and in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Brian Mulroney, we just developed this assumption that bigger companies are more efficient and therefore better. This hasn’t been questioned since then. In 1986, Canada’s Combines Investigation Act was replaced by the Competition Act. The focus switched to efficiencies, and we forgot that the point of the laws was originally to protect small businesses.
My mom ran a clothing store in town for 30 years, Gordon’s Ladies Wear. I come from a family of small business owners. So, I take this personally. And the assumption that bigger is better and more efficient, I’m like, “No. Walmart is not a better retailer than my mom, sorry. They’re not better than Margolians.” [Margolians was a family-owned department store in Amherst that opened its doors in 1906, and closed in 2016, by which time it was called Dayle’s.]
HE: What problems do you see with the Competition Act?
AC: Currently, the way the Competition Act is written, it is very permissive of any mergers. The default in the Act is that all mergers are good, unless the Competition Bureau of Canada can prove that, I think the term is, that “they will substantially lessen competition.” So, the Competition Bureau has to go in and prove that. But even if it does, the decision can be appealed. Everything is geared up to let mergers go through. The Rogers-Shaw merger, on the face of it, just shouldn’t be allowed to go through, and Competition Commissioner [Matthew] Boswell is fighting back. Rogers and Shaw have appealed, and it’s going through the tribunal this fall. I will still be shocked if it is blocked.
Because of changes made to the Competition Act in 2009, the Competition Bureau can only go back and look at mergers within one year after they’re approved. It used to be that the Competition Bureau could review mergers for up to three years after they were completed. That review in 2009 was the last major review of the Competition Act. They called it “compete to win.”
HE: You mentioned the media and telecommunications sectors. Are there other sectors where you think there’s a dangerous lack of competition, too much monopoly control?
AC: I think all of them. I kid, but actually not really. The big ones that people can see and grasp easily are obviously telecoms, and grocery stores, the food chain and food supply, and big tech. But then it goes into so many other businesses, like the blueberry industry in Cumberland and Colchester counties. [In 2018 the Competition Bureau of Canada opened an investigation into whether Oxford Frozen Foods was involved in suppressing the local price paid to wild blueberry growers, and then in 2021, quietly closed the investigation.]
In Nova Scotia, there’s like one company that basically builds all the highways. And look at forestry in New Brunswick, at any industries in New Brunswick. And dairy; I don’t think we pasteurize milk in Nova Scotia anymore. I think all the small independent dairies or milk processors have been bought by Saputo or Agropur. I think they ship all the milk to Quebec for processing and then bring it back.
HE: Is it possible to reverse this? Won’t some say that you want to go backwards, none of this is bad?
AC: It is possible to reverse it. Right now with the Competition Act, the assumption is that all mergers are good, and the Competition Bureau has to prove a merger will harm competition. We could switch it around. We could just assume that all mergers harm competition. If a business wants to merge, it has to come in and prove that it won’t harm competition.
Businesses break themselves up all the time. Businesses sell divisions of themselves all the time. So it’s not an impossible thing to do. It really wouldn’t be a big deal if Shoppers Drug Mart was its own company again. That wouldn’t be hard to do. We can do it because we’ve done it before.
HE: Does the Competition Bureau itself need to be strengthened?
AC: The Competition Bureau used to have the ability to do market studies, where they would get a complaint and go out and investigate just to see what was going on in these different industries. They would just discover all these major issues, like people fixing prices. They also had the power to compel information and they could subpoena documents. Today we don’t know how consolidated many industries are because nobody’s looking at it. Nobody’s studying it. Nobody’s getting the information. I think if the Competition Bureau were empowered to do so, we would learn a whole lot about our economy. There is also a huge lack of transparency in investigations that the Competition Bureau is doing.
HE: Is the Competition Bureau understaffed and under-resourced, or does it just not have the authority it needs?
AC: I think it’s both. If you put the Competition Bureau on one side, and then you’ve got Rogers – Shaw on the other side. And Loblaws. And Facebook. And Amazon. We can’t staff it up to the same size as those.
HE: What do you hope will come out of the public consultation on the future of competition in Canada that starts today?
AC: That all Canadians are involved and contribute to the review of the Competition Act, and that’s it not just big businesses, economists and lawyers that are consulted on our Competition Act. We need to find the roots of our competition policy and look at protecting and helping small towns, small businesses, and individual Canadians again.