A cheer for Wal Mart

As the Canada Games wrap up in Whitehorse, athletes and support crews from across the country will be taking home their impressions of the…

As the Canada Games wrap up in Whitehorse, athletes and support crews from across the country will be taking home their impressions of the Yukon’s capital.

Many will remember a cold, concrete jungle – much like any southern town, but with ice-fog.

Ten years ago they might have taken home a very different picture.

Travelling between the city’s downtown core and the athletes’ village, our recent guests had to drive past the mile of parking lots and big-box stores known to locals as Wal-ville.

But not so long ago, the same road passed through a picturesque wetland, populated by ducks, shorebirds, and coyotes.

It was not uncommon during the summer season for traffic to be held up by a mother duck leading a brood of ducklings across the street.

The wetland was filled and the giant parking lot was created to accommodate a vast retail complex, whose anchor business was Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer. The deal to bring the giant big-box store to town included a commitment from the government and the city to provide large subsidies in the form of infrastructure – roads, sidewalks, and traffic lights.

The premier of the day even went so far as to lead the store’s employees in their opening-day Wal-Mart cheer.

This year, a young activist has taken up the cause of the ducks.

Five-year-old Keenan Roush and his mother wrote letters to the local papers putting Wal-Mart on notice that they were boycotting the store, and encouraging their friends to do the same.

“If you were kind enough,” Keenan said, “you would change things back to the way it was. You could bulldoze your store down and take a loader and scoop the cement out of the swamp and rebuild everyone’s pond.”

Concerned for not just the ducks and coyotes, but also the “fish, minnows and frogs (who) had nowhere to go,” Keenan not only went to the press, but took his campaign to his kindergarten class.

Keenan’s mother, Jasmime Roush, suggested a more practical solution to the matter of the wetland.

“To clear Wal-Mart’s name,” she said in her own letter to the editor, “it should find a similar habitat and convert it to a protected area.”

I too miss the ducks.

Like Keenan, if I could have my druthers, I’d have the parking lot gone and the wetland back. But since the Wal-Mart store was built, new businesses have come to town and existing businesses have relocated.

The concrete has grown and the town has adapted, and Wal-ville looks very much as if it’s here to stay.

Admirable as Keenan’s activism is, the swamp is not coming back.

I, too, withhold my business from Wal-Mart, though not primarily because of the ducks.

I don’t spend my money at Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart abuses its employees, and favours suppliers who abuse them even more.

In the US, the company has been convicted or has settled out of court in numerous cases over violations of child-labour laws, over forcing employees to work full shifts without breaks and locking workers into the store overnight, and failing to pay overtime to night-shift janitors who work seven days a week.

Chinese workers in factories supplying Wal-Mart have to paint 8,900 toy parts a day to make the stated daily wage of $3.45. Any less, and they make $1.23.

South American workers in Wal-Mart plants suffer forced pregnancy tests, 24-hour work shifts, extreme heat, pat-down searches, and locked exits, to name a few.

Wal-Mart garment workers in Bangladesh have been locked in to factories like slaves, and forced to work six months without pay.

One worker reports that her manager slapped her face till her nose bled because she had failed to meet her quota.

In Quebec, when employees certified a union to protect themselves from the company’s predatory labour practices, Wal-Mart closed the store.

When the meat-cutting department in a Texas outlet unionized, Wal-Mart closed its entire US meat-cutting operation.

Wal-Mart can be made to change.

Activists like Keenan and his mom can succeed, because even the biggest retailer in the world relies on the goodwill of its customers.

With environmental issues suddenly at the top of the public agenda, Wal-Mart has become a leader in so-called green chemistry – the banning of the most dangerous chemicals and the promotion of benign alternatives.

Wal-Mart has announced its intention to blacklist 17 dangerous chemicals.

Such is the power of the retail giant that suppliers will be forced to comply, and before long these chemicals will simply disappear from the market.

Wal-Mart, so often a force for evil in the world, can equally be a force for positive change, if only the public demands it.

Fight on Keenan.

Hope for the future rests with you, and with your belief that we can make things better.

But don’t give up on Wal-Mart.

With enough pressure, you can make them treat their workers decently, choose more local suppliers, and even select locations that do less damage to the environment.

Someday, maybe you and I will be happy to shop there again.

We can’t drive the concrete and asphalt away, we can’t bring back the ducks and the minnows, but if we work at it, we can make Wal-Mart behave.

One step at a time, Keenan, we can change the world.

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