NOBODY CAN ever be sure just at what point passive outrage turns into public action and triggers a revolution. For their own convenience historians select arbitrary dates and events: the storming of the Bastille; the Boston Tea Party. But the real origins (sometimes the real heroes, too) are frequently obscured in the muddle and confusion that surrounds a popular cause being born. So it was with Canada’s great consumer protest movement of 1966.
Some future observers may call it The Revolution of Mrs. O’Reilly's Turnip. Certainly that celebrated (but admittedly out-of-season) $1.20 vegetable Toronto’s Mrs. June O’Reilly sent gift-wrapped to Prime Minister Pearson a few months ago dramatically focused attention on the consumers’ growing discontent. But even earlier Mrs. Anne O’Brien of St. John’s had organized half the housewife population of Newfoundland in a supermarket boycott that was so effective it forced Premier Joey Smallwood to convene a royal commission on food prices.
The consensus now is that the emerging leader of the popular front, the inspiration for the Winnipeg Homemakers, the Verdun Inflation Fighters and dozens of other bands of rebel housewives from New Glasgow, NS, to Port Alberni, BC, is a pretty Ottawa-district housewife who finds the Muzak and cool air of the big food stores irresistible.
“I love going to supermarkets,” Nadine Angeline Wilson, 32, said wistfully, a week after she forswore them. “If I can get a baby-sitter, quite frankly it’s two hours’ relaxation. But I go crazy in a store like that. Women have to realize they are fighting experts when they shop. Everything you don’t need is at eye-level.”
Lawrence Wilson’s monthly pay as an RCAF electronics technician is $428, before deductions. The Wilsons rent an old farm house 10 miles south of Uplands RCAF Station for $25 a month and drive a battered 1957 Pontiac station wagon. For three years they have been putting $110 a month into buying a farm at Clinton, Ont., where they plan to raise pigs, potatoes and beef. (Mrs. Wilson is a farmer’s daughter from Madoc, Ont.)
That doesn’t leave much for eyelevel shopping.
When Mrs. Wilson isn’t busy with sons Morgan, three, and Duncan, five months, she raises hamsters for sale to Ottawa pet shops and makes quilts that sell for $50. The Wilsons buy second-hand furniture and refinish it, putting the money they save into good appliances. While Lawrence was stationed in Marville, France, they bought an excellent stereo for about $200.
A natural artist, Nadine Angeline paints skilfully. Professional-looking oils decorate their farmhouse walls. But the untaught housewife with the Annie Rooney thatch of auburn hair won’t paint for gain. It is her private pleasure.
When lettuce went to 39 cents a head and an egg in the hamburg casserole became unthinkable, she turned an artist’s critical eye on the supermarket. She called a popular Ottawa open-line program September 21 and asked if anyone was interested in a boycott of supermarkets to bring down prices.
The response was 1,000 calls in 24 hours, formation of the Ottawa Consumers’ Protest Association, and a
two-week boycott of supermarkets that began October 6. Spot surveys by the Ottawa Journal and the Ottawa Citizen indicated that at least 75 percent of city consumers supported the idea. Supermarket managers, interviewed in unthronged aisles, maintained that all was well. However, massive cut-price sales appeared in the second week of the boycott.
A packinghouse union boss upbraided Mrs. Wilson for a situation that might mean layoffs for workers just off strike. She replied that unions had to share blame for high food costs. Politicians, anti-Semites, Communists and profiteers all have tried to get on the protest bandwagon. Mrs. Wilson coolly brushes them off.
“We are completely politically free and we have made a point of staying that way,” she says. “We lose our freedom as consumers when we become allied.”
Her direct mind even eschews demonstrations. She simply tells protesters to keep out of supermarkets until prices go down. Why supermarkets? This was the only place the housewife could strike.
“I feel someone in the middle is making a tremendous profit,” says Mrs. Wilson. “If the housewife and the farmer struck, we’d have them in a vise. The boat needs to be rocked pretty badly right now. I think it should be tipped right over to see what comes to the top.”
Mrs. Wilson has been the star of open-line programs all over the country since September and has appeared on both television networks. International interviews have gone to West Germany and around the Commonwealth on radio.
The Canadian Tribune, a Communist newspaper in Toronto, printed what it called an exclusive interview w'ith her. The next day the Toronto Telegram called to ask: “Are you a
Communist organization?” Mrs. Wilson, who was security-checked as an IBM operator in the air force, was shocked. Since then, she turns hate letters and suspicious material over to the RCMP.
Her hero is Dr. Morton Shulman, the fighting Toronto coroner who inspired CBC TV’s Wojeck series, and she thinks he should be in parliament. She hasn’t much faith in the Commons-Senate committee on consumer costs, which won’t report until spring.
“Too many people can’t wait until next May,” she says. “We've had calls from people who have to sell their houses. We get an awful lot of support from old-age pensioners and people on relief. A social worker said she sees a lot of cases of malnutrition among pensioners.”
Ottawa’s Bertram Loeb, boss of M. Loeb Ltd., and the IGA supermarket chain, reacted to Mrs. Wilson’s campaign by blaming high prices on housewives who don't shop thriftily. For one thing, they bought “luxury cake mixes” instead of baking their own. Mr. Loeb emerged with pie in his eye as housewives wrote to newspapers to say it is cheaper to buy a cake mix than to buy the ingredients.
A week after the boycott began, M. Loeb shares on the Montreal stock exchange hit a 1966 low'. And IGA was frantically advertising cake mixes at three for one dollar — “a saving of 47 cents” — in an effort to recoup.
Generally speaking the supermarket chains kept a stoic silence during the first stages of the consumer outburst. And with one exception (Dominion Stores), anybody reading the annual reports of the big chains would hardly knowthere is any problem about rising prices. The reports all ring with phrases about rosier futures, higher sales and, in every case, increased profits.
Housewives who may have been awed by this bland display of confidence took heart at the daily reports of successful boycotts in the U.S. In Denver, Colorado, some 25,000 housewives forced five big chains to reduce prices all across the board and similar victories were recorded in California, Arizona and Oregon.
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