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Jagmeet Singh vs. Galen Weston: The NDP's crusade to bring down 'corporate greed'

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OTTAWA -

Pushing a grocery cart up and down the aisles of Loblaws, Jagmeet Singh has to admit it's all a little bit awkward.

After all, the NDP leader has lambasted the grocery giant and its former president Galen Weston Jr. — famous among Canadians for his 30-second COVID-era TV and radio ads — for "ripping people off."

Today, however, Singh is just running errands. Well, mostly.

He selects a loaf of sourdough bread and a bouquet of Valentine's Day flowers for his wife. In the dairy aisle, he eschews the familiar yellow "No Name" butter in favour of a more costly brand — a small act of personal rebellion.

"I wouldn't have thought twice about it before," he says.

But Singh has made it a central tenet of his party's policy to take on big companies he believes are making record profits while ordinary people struggle to afford the basics.

"That is something that people are becoming really aware of — and that creates some opportunity for us to fix it."

Singh's private member's bill, which aims to bring down the cost of basic essentials, passed second reading in the House of Commons with the support of Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs.

Liberals have voted against the bill, with some accusing the NDP leader of trying to stifle free enterprise.

"Do you think that I want to stifle them from ripping people off? I 100 per cent want to stifle them," Singh says.

"I want to stifle them from exploiting people."

The bill proposes stiffer penalties for price and wage-fixing – measures that would have had consequences for the bread price-fixing scandal of 2017. It would also set rules to prevent mergers that Singh believes lead to abuse.

Under pressure in the polls, the Liberals introduced measures aimed at easing the pain, including a grocery "rebate" last summer and changes to the Competition Act to help boost competition in the sector.

Last month, Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne said he was actively working to lure international grocers to Canada to spur retail competition, an effort critics derided as futile.

As for the Conservatives, they have relentlessly blamed higher prices across the board on the Liberal government's price on carbon-based pollution.

Loblaws did not respond to a request for comment.

In the past year, Singh has been trying to tap into palpable consumer anger in Canada as his party tries to capitalize on cost-of-living concerns in order to expand its political footprint in the next federal election.

He's on to something, if Bartosz Bos is any indication.

Bos runs Cutouts Canada, which sells tote bags emblazoned with Weston's face in the style of former U.S. president Barack Obama's famous campaign poster, the word "Hope" replaced with "Starve."

Bos said he wishes "feckless bootlickers in government" would develop policies in that benefit Canadians.

Most, however, are there "to collect a golden pension or to secure a plum position in the private sector after they're voted out of office," Bos said. Canada is no longer a democracy, but "an oligopoly run by select businesses," he added.

"From energy and telecommunications to media, travel, and feeding ourselves, we are under the thumb of a few powerful corporate entities run by craven sociopaths who would drown us all in a single glass of water, if it suited their purpose," Bos said in an interview conducted by email.

Like Singh, Bos said he would prefer not to shop at any Loblaws-affiliated stores, but the company is so vast "it's practically impossible" not to shop there.

Most grocery stores in Canada are owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd., Sobeys Inc. and Metro Inc., leaving consumers with few alternatives.

A new survey by Leger for The Canadian Press found about 64 per cent of respondents fear the price of groceries is going up. Only 28 per cent said it was about the same, while just five per cent say it's on the way down.

They vary, however, when it comes to who deserves the blame.

Some 27 per cent of respondents attributed the increase to global factors like inflation and supply chain issues, while 26 per cent said grocery chains are squeezing consumers in the name of profit. Another 23 per cent said it's the federal government's fault.

The survey, conducted online between Feb. 16-18, surveyed some 1,529 Canadian respondents. Online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they are not considered a random sample.

Nearly one in four respondents, or 23 per cent, said they found the federal government's grocery rebate from last July helpful, while more than half — 52 per cent — did not.

But for Singh, the fight against Weston and Loblaws is a personal one, even though he acknowledged that his MP's salary leaves him better off than the average Canadian consumer.

In his early 20s, Singh took in his 15-year-old brother as his dad struggled with addiction. In those days, he said, grocery store aisles were stressful places as he struggled to afford enough food for the week.

"I don't feel it when I go to the grocery store now, but I feel it when I look at the faces of the people I see," he said as he pushed his cart through the aisles.

"I see the kind of look they have when they see the register and the number going up and up. So I can't feel relaxed when I see the people around me hurting."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2024.

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