History

A THREE-PENNY OPERA

Children rallied against a 1947 candy price hike

SUE FERGUSON April 21 2003
History

A THREE-PENNY OPERA

Children rallied against a 1947 candy price hike

SUE FERGUSON April 21 2003

A THREE-PENNY OPERA

History

SUE FERGUSON

Children rallied against a 1947 candy price hike

IT WAS 1947, the soldiers had returned home and the economy was booming. Kids across the country hung out at the soda fountain, and in Ladysmith, B.C., 90 km northwest of Victoria, they gathered at the Wigwam Café. It was just such an innocent gathering one late-April day that set off a chain of events, sparking a 10-day national boycott campaign that saw 300 kids storm the Victoria legislature while thousands of others staged protests across the country-stirring up fears that Communists were corrupting the nation’s youth.

In those days a nickel, recalls Parker Williams, a retired marine engineer who grew up just outside Ladysmith, “was a luxury-big purchasing power.” It would buy an ice-cream or a bottle of pop. It would also buy, until that spring anyway, a chocolate bar. O’Henry, Neilson, Sweet Marie were among the favourites. Then, one noon hour, the candy connoisseurs came in for a shock. “They raised the price from five cents to eight,” says Williams. “It really blew us away.”

That evening, Williams, then 17, and 40 of his friends marched up and down the main street, hoisting homemade placards denouncing candy makers and the sellers

who had passed along the 60 per cent price hike—part of widespread inflationary increases following the end of wartime wage and price controls. Williams led the parade in a black 1923 McLaughlin Buick, “all chalked up,” he recalls, with slogans like “Don’t be a sucker.” They picketed the store the next three noon hours, making headlines in the Ladysmith Chronicle. But the Wigwam continued to sell chocolate bars for eight cents and the protest, says Williams, “just faded away.”

Not quite. Children across the country got wind of the boycott and—often at the urging of the National Federation of Labour Youth, a Communist Party front organization of about 3,000—took similar action. In Bathurst, N.B., 12-year-old Connie LeBlanc gathered a dozen friends on her front porch. “We made posters out of cardboard boxes and nailed them onto tree branches,” says the retired office worker who still lives in her hometown. Armed with the placards, they then “started at the corner store, and walked up the street, past W.J. Kent general store, to Veniot Pharmacy,” owned by LeBlanc’s dad. Last year, six of that group retraced their march, complete with placards

and a performance of their homespun protest jingle, We want afive-cent chocolate bar, Eight cents is going too darn far. That re-enactment is featured in The Five Cent War, a documentary (airing April 26 on History Television) about the cross-Canada 10-day candy bar boycott.

LeBlanc can’t remember what prompted her to take to the streets. But according to the Toronto Telegram, she and thousands like her were duped by the Communists. “Chocolate bars and a world revolution may seem poles apart,” said the paper, “but to the devious Communist mind there is a close relationship.”

One of those “devious minds” belonged to retired York University political scientist Norman Penner, then NFLY’s general secretary and a CPC member until 1957. He recalls being asked to organize a protest in Toronto. “I got into Harbord Collegiate,” he says, where the school had assembled to hear him speak. Even a senior Cadbury executive was there. But the students failed to move the candy baron. He told Penner simply, “We’re not going back to five cents.”

The media grossly exaggerated the Communist involvement, says Penner. As for the Bathurst group, recalls LeBlanc: “We didn’t know anything about them. We were just a bunch of kids.” Adds Williams: “Politics was the last thing on our minds.” What was on their minds was surely sweeter. ful