Last October, cabinet minister François-Philippe Champagne joined the CBC’s Rosemary Barton to discuss what the government billed as a series of new measures to stabilize the spiraling price of groceries. Even with this somewhat conservative framing onhand (“stabilizing” prices, it should go without saying, isn’t the same thing as actually lowering them) Champagne was remarkably evasive — repeatedly implying that the best solution to high grocery prices ultimately lay with consumers. 

“If you ask me, what’s going to have the most impact,” he told Barton, “is really if we as consumers… where we decide to spend our dollars… that’s going to have the most impact on them [major grocery and supermarket chains] responding to the needs of Canadians.” A few moments later, the minister took this absurd premise even further, suggesting that the only real power the federal government has at its disposal with regard to inflated food costs was the ability to get supermarket giants on the phone: “Obviously we have soft power [as the] government because you call them and they come… but then it’s really an appeal to all the consumers out there, all of us, to say ‘listen, let’s watch each of them and let’s direct our dollars to the one that is giving us the best value for our money.’” 

Barton, to her credit, wasn’t having it, replying with the question probably at the top of mind for many viewers: “Okay, but then why are you needed at all?” 

Thousands of ‘really angry Canadians’

Given the extent of well-founded public anger towards companies like Loblaws, not to mention their incessant price-gouging, the limpness of Champagne’s messaging was nothing short of unbelievable. Between $37 chicken breasts, $8 bags of chips, $9 butter, $30 feta cheese, and individual pieces of wood being sold for $10 a pop, the average shopper knows full-well they’re being ripped off without needing to read up on the finer points of inflation. (On the popular subreddit r/loblawsisoutofcontrol, which now boasts more than 49,000 members, people across the country share countless examples like this daily.)

The plural of anecdote is not data, but in this case it might as well be. 

With the pandemic, global supply chain disruption, and general climate of economic volatility as their smokescreen, the corporate overlords at Big Grocery have relentlessly exploited recent events to increase their profits — all while insisting their culpability for high prices is a mirage. To this end, spin doctors at companies like Loblaws have done their utmost to claim that, while they may be the “face” of food inflation they are not in fact its cause: sure, profits might be soaring — Loblaws’, incidentally, topped $541 million in the final months of 2023 alone — but that’s just because people are buying more. Those higher prices you’re paying? Caused by suppliers and manufacturers charging them more. The 18th century castle inhabited by the Weston family, who own Loblaws? Their private island in Georgian Bay? Their palatial estate in Florida? (Okay, even the company’s shameless PR hacks haven’t bothered to spin those last three…) 

In one sense at least, the ultimate goal of such claims is less to convince anyone than to sow doubt that any single actor is really to blame for higher prices. Responsibility, corporate oligopolies would have us believe, is so diffuse — being linked to global supply chains, geopolitical events, the conduct of other companies, etc. — that they themselves cannot possibly be the primary villain. 

All of this can be dispensed with easily enough. As economist Jim Stanford demonstrated in a piece published by Canadian Dimension last year, food retail profits have actually doubled since before the pandemic. Contrary to what companies like Loblaws have insisted, moreover, that isn’t because consumers are buying more — average net profit margins in food retailing being up by about 75 per cent as well over the same period. As the wider cost of living crisis spread, meanwhile, Canadians had less in their pockets and sales dropped. 

“Painfully,” Stanford concluded, “Canadians are actually buying fewer groceries than before the pandemic — but paying much more for them.” 

The story of how we got here is a mixture of pandemic-related corporate opportunism and government inaction. But it is also, plainly, a story of old-fashioned monopolism as well. Canada’s three largest grocery chains (Loblaw, Metro, Sobeys, plus their various subsidiaries), now control nearly two-thirds of the retail food market. Loblaw on its own has a stake approaching one-third and, as David Moscrop wrote in a recent essay for The Walrus, between the company’s many socket puppet brands, thousands of stores, and expansion into areas that have absolutely nothing to do with food or groceries (it has its own credit card and nearly a hundred private health clinics, among other things) it is increasingly difficult for the average consumer to avoid. 

“The anger being rightly vented by Canadians at supermarkets every time they go shopping, should burn brightly every time we are ripped off by an economy that is organized to maximize private profit, rather than meet human needs.”

Mental health and addictions worker Emily Johnson and other moderators of the r/lowblawsisoutofcontrol subreddit are promoting a nationwide boycott of the company next month in response to its price-gouging. It’s a laudable and worthy effort that deserves wide support, and is less an instance of Canadians heeding minister Champagne’s toothless words from last fall than of government complacency leaving them with little other choice. 

In the final analysis, however, Canada’s grocery market is so monopolistic that “voting with your dollars” (in the minister’s phrase) is increasingly a misnomer — the choice to be gouged by one giant conglomerate or another when you try to buy milk or bread not being much of a choice at all. 

Consumer behavior is not the reason grocery chains are inflating their prices and, by extension, the soaring cost of food cannot ultimately be rectified by it either. It’s tempting to interpret Champagne’s messaging last fall as a straightforward example of lazy spin, but in his insistence that the government of one of the world’s largest economies has merely “soft power” when it comes to the issue, we can detect a whiff of something less passive and more ideological as well. 

At the national level, policymakers, both Liberal and Conservative alike, have simply accepted stratospheric corporate profiteering and rising monopolism as normal and tolerable developments beyond their control. The state, according to the now-established norm, doesn’t make deep interventions into the workings of the market, even when (as in this case) large private actors who profit from the sale of basic goods squeeze consumers during a cost of living crisis and pay out incomprehensibly large dividends to shareholders. 

The likes of consumer boycotts and small, targeted policies of the kind that may appear in this week’s federal budget will therefore only ever constitute short-term and patchwork solutions. 

As Stanford puts it: “Our fury at the supermarkets should be the start of a bigger conversation about the power of corporations to charge whatever the market will bear, even in a social and economic emergency… the anger being rightly vented by Canadians at supermarkets every time they go shopping, should burn brightly every time we are ripped off by an economy that is organized to maximize private profit, rather than meet human needs.”