Ezra Winton floors Rob Maguire with the news.
“The manager of Wal-Mart was in the audience tonight,” he said, standing outside the Beringia Centre’s theatre on Monday night after the duo’s screening of Wal-Town, a documentary about Wal-Mart.
“No way … really?” shrieked Maguire while he packed DVD copies of the documentary into a suitcase.
“Yeah he wants us to stop by the store tomorrow and talk with him,” said Winton.
“That’s incredible!” said Maguire.
Victories don’t come much bigger for these two. Maguire and Winton are activists who want to create discussion about Wal-Mart wherever they go.
Debate topics they hope to plant during their tour of the North include Wal-Mart’s unprecedented power, predatory effects on local business, stained human rights and labour records, and the thoughtless turbo-consumption the retailer relies on.
Their tool is Wal-Town, a documentary that reveals that Wal-Mart is wealthier than most nations and employs more people than the United States military, and that its founders, the Waltons, are the richest family in the world with a fortune of more than US$90 billion.
The film argues the company has made its mint by selling products made by children; that these cheap products destroy local businesses, which can’t compete, and that Wal-Mart pays its employees poorly and smashes attempts to create unions.
Filmmaker Sergeo Kirby followed Winton, Maguire, and other members of their überculture activist collective for two years as they traveled across Canada and stood outside Wal-Marts trying to change minds.
Winton and Maguire were in Whitehorse on Monday to screen Kirby’s film and provoke discussion. The approach seemed to work.
At times, the question-and-answer period with the 70 or so audience members at the Beringia Centre felt like a secret meeting of geeks talking about ways to fight back against the schoolyard bullies.
“What can we do about Wal-Mart?” asked one woman in the audience, upset at what she had just watched.
“Ideally, Wal-Mart wouldn’t exist,” said Maguire. “Until that day comes, avoid shopping at Wal-Mart. Keep you money in the community.”
But that’s where the Wal-Town argument gets difficult when applied to Whitehorse — and where the discussion gets interesting.
The city, in many ways, is an anomaly for anti-Wal-Mart activists like Maguire and Winton.
Most communities in southern Canada see Wal-Marts spring up on vacant land far from the town centre. But Whitehorse’s Wal-Mart is within a long walk of the former retail hub on Main Street.
Many battle-weary Yukoners will also tell you the company’s low prices have forced local businesses to drop their once over-inflated prices.
They view Wal-Mart as a middle finger to local business owners who have gouged them and provided bad service.
But presented with these arguments in Wal-Mart’s defence, Winton and Maguire didn’t budge.
“Why did it have to be a Wal-Mart?” asked Maguire, clearly excited to debate about his favourite topic.
“Bringing in a Wal-Mart is hardly a solution. It’s a short-term, one-sided solution that has tons of costs, both locally and globally,” he said.
“Wal-Mart’s spoiling everybody,” added Winton, on cue. “A pair of sneakers shouldn’t be able to cost $5.”
The working poor in Whitehorse are often dependent on Wal-Mart’s cheap prices for soap, socks and food.
But still, no movement from the duo.
“It’s really about values, and those are some of the hardest discussions to have with people,” said Winton.
“Low-income people are saying, ‘Well, I have four kids, I need to buy them shoes; Wal-Mart has shoes for $5 a pair, the next guy has shoes for $12 a pair.’
“What we’re saying is that there’s got to be other values put on things, other than the monetary value.”
People in the middle- to high-income brackets should boycott Wal-Mart while creating the type of community that doesn’t need a big box retailer to plug social gaps, he added.
If the two had known it, they might have added that Whitehorse still has no publicly funded food bank or youth shelter.
Prices in local stores in communities where Wal-Mart has arrived usually plummet, said Maguire.
But so do the wages they pay their workers and the standards they have for buying their supplies, he said.
So what do they think about pressuring Wal-Mart into becoming a better company?
Many supporters of big box retail point to the “green” Wal-Mart stores in Colorado and Texas that feature wind power and living roofs as positive change.
Starbucks — once the target of anti-globalization activists — has recently won praise for its progressive labour and environmental policies.
“I think it’s a great example of when sustained pressure is applied to a corporation, globally, that it starts to affect them and they start to respond to it,” said Winton.
“But if they respond to it with whitewashing campaigns, such as Wal-Mart with its so-called ‘green’ stores, then the pressure needs to be stronger.
“A Wal-Mart that is sustainable, democratic, socially responsible, ethical and environmentally friendly, would not be a Wal-Mart,” he said.
“It would be a locally owned store in the community.”
Thanks to the company’s much-heralded policy of letting travellers park in its lots for free, the Wal-Mart in Whitehorse has a plethora of beige RVs in the summer.
Maguire wasn’t impressed with the flattering media coverage the company has received as a result.
“They’ve gotten lots of good press, but every province and territory has rest stops,” he said.
“You can pull up to a rest stop and park in the trees where there are bathroom facilities, and it’s free.
“Where’s all the good press there?”
So, after their three years of criss-crossing Canada surveying the effects of Wal-Marts on communities and staring in a documentary that argues Wal-Mart is nothing but bad, the question must be asked: is Whitehorse a Wal-Town?
“It definitely doesn’t seem like a ghost town, like some of the Wal-Town’s we’ve been to,” conceded Winton.
But he quickly noted many towns he’s seen in his many tours across Canada retain their downtowns, but that they lose a focus on business and commerce and instead become about “knickknacks and coffee.”
The two are continuing their tour of the North by screening Wal-Town on Tuesday night in Dawson, before heading east for Yellowknife.
They think they have a message that people need to absorb before change can occur.
“People want a low price, but I think most people put a priority on healthy communities, and healthy air,” said Maguire.
“If they know saving a few pennies is going to compromise that, is going to contribute,” he said.
“If the world consumed as much as the average Canadian, we’d need three planets,” added Winton. “There’s a bigger picture that we’re trying to engage people in.”
To read more about Wal-Town the film and überculture, go to www.waltown.com.