July 31, 1998 Features & Images » Feature Story

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A Brief History Of Corporate Time The corporate world includes Whistler Part One By Stephen Vogler Twenty years ago, if you lived in Whistler and needed a new pair of jeans you had to hitch or drive to Squamish to make your purchase. The same was true for some decent grocery shopping. If you had a hankering for fast food (maybe a hangover from your previous city life), you had to go all the way to Vancouver. But the corporate business world that used to be so foreign to Whistler has become fully entrenched in the valley. Let me make my point more clearly: A&W, Body Shop, Budget, CP, Eddie Bauer, Foot Locker, Gap, Guess, Home Hardware, Intrawest, KFC, Levi’s, McDonald’s, Nike, Pharmasave, Radio Shack, Re/Max, Roots, Royal Bank, Second Cup, Southam, Starbucks, Subway, TD Bank. The list goes on, but it’s safe to say that large corporations have found fertile ground in our resort town. Corporatization has occurred all over the world in the past 20 years, and as with many things, Whistler has proven to be a microcosm (if a somewhat intensified and accelerated one) of those global changes. We live in a corporate culture. Corporations have insinuated themselves into all facets of our lives. They not only dominate the marketplace, but have a presence in our schools and governments. Increasingly, they have powers that reach beyond those of nation states. Of the 100 biggest economies in the world as of 1991, 51 were corporations. General Motors ranked 20th, ahead of Finland, Denmark and Saudi Arabia. But apart from saving us a trip to Squamish for jeans, what has the arrival of all those corporations done for us? In terms of our local economy, the biggest difference between a traditional corporate business and a local one is that the profits generated by a corporation in Whistler don’t remain in the valley. Instead, they’re whisked off to shareholders who buy, sell and trade those shares in an electronic chain of money that has very little to do with our community. That picture is changing somewhat through franchises, which may sport corporate logos, merchandise and corporate support but which are individual businesses, often owned by local people. Some of the profit (or loss) goes to the franchise owner and some goes to the corporation. The franchise is a variation on the traditional corporate model, where there is no sole owner responsible for the actions of the business. The CEO of a multinational corporation might live in New York, Hongkong or Toronto, and you won’t likely bump into him or her at the post office or in the Nesters produce department. But you will find the owners of the local McDonald’s, Re/Max and Levi’s franchises around town. As predominant as corporations have become in our community and our society at large, we seldom stop to think about what exactly they are. The Oxford English Dictionary says the word derives from the Latin corpus meaning body, or French corpora-re, to embody: "2. A number of persons united, or regarded as united, in one body." While corporations are not bodies like you or I, they are considered such in the eyes of the law. In most countries today, including Canada and the U.S., they’re given the constitutional rights of natural persons — including free speech and the right to lobby the government. But when it comes to constitutional responsibilities, corporations manage to slip out of the designation of person. They don’t go to jail when they break the law, can deduct fines for wrong-doing from their income tax bill, and as an added bonus, they can live forever. A look at the history of corporations can tell us much about their powerful position in our society today. The first corporations were granted charters by the British Crown in the 18th century. The "joint stock" agreement enabled the king and some prominent businessmen to amass enough capital to exploit the wealth of the colonies. These first chartered corporations included the British East India Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and many American colonies such as Maryland and Maine. American colonists feared the exploitative powers of British corporations, and following the American Revolution they insured that corporate powers were strictly curtailed. Labourers, small farmers, traders, artisans and landed gentry were determined to keep investment and production decisions local and democratic. For the first hundred years after independence, American corporations were only chartered for a limited number of years; they couldn’t be involved in more than one business venture; had limits to the amount of profits they could make; and if they didn’t serve the common good of the people, could have their charters revoked at any time. In Canada, the history of corporate power is less documented and harder to find. However, before confederation corporations were chartered by the British crown and were also subjected to controls. Their lifetime was limited and their charters could be revoked at any time. Following confederation, and into the early 20th century, new legislation changed corporate powers from a privilege to a right. Those rights became enshrined in the Constitution Act and eventually the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the U.S., continued pressure from corporate interests throughout the 19th century saw corporate limits slowly whittled away, until in 1886, corporations were given the same rights as people under the American constitution. Seeing the rise in corporate power, Abraham Lincoln warned in an 1864 letter that "as a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow... until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed." In many ways, Lincoln’s fears came true over the next few decades as industrialists and "the robber barons" took hold of the economy and the government. From the 1880s to the early 1900s, many people banded together under the Populist and labour movements, among others, to place some controls on giant corporations. But it was this era that set the stage for the sweeping powers of modern corporations. So are today’s multinational corporations evil empires that will bleed money from the masses and take control of our town and our nation? I don’t think they’re inherently any more or less evil than people are. What they can be is impersonal and unaccountable. They’re a group of people united under a common cause, a shared set of values, dominated by one over-riding principle: generating profit. Yet nobody needs to answer for the consequences of the corporate actions. Nobody is the corporation. It’s an invisible glue binding people together — whether as stock holder, employee or consumer — allowing them to check their identity at the door and focus on the great common goal of increasing share value. But while the corporate body is merely a legal fiction, real bodies are affected in very real ways by some modern corporations. The worst examples take place in far off countries. Most people have heard the stories of young children in third world countries working 14 hours a day and earning 27 cents to sew a shirt worth $34 in Canada. It’s the worst side of the industrial revolution happening all over again, only on a larger scale and out of view of Western eyes. The latest argument from the corporately-owned North American press is that those kids may be better off working for foreign corporations than not working at all. Such an argument may help to appease the conscience of Western consumers, but if putting people to work under slave labour conditions is the West’s answer to solving third-world poverty, they’re likely better off without our help. In reality, the ridiculously low wages and poor working conditions are simply a way of increasing corporate profits by exploiting the world’s poor. And as more and more jobs are shipped off to third world countries, labourers in the West are left unemployed and unable to support their own families. While Whistlerites can now choose from all the major brand names without leaving their own town, the choices they make have repercussions around the globe. We might want to fool ourselves into thinking our purchases have no significance beyond the logo on the product, but it’s getting harder and harder to ignore what goes on behind the corporate front. The impact we can have on corporations, however, is not limited to our consumer choices. After all, we’re not just consumers, but citizens. Corporations have so much power in our lives today because we let them have it. We might remember that they are creations of the people and that they haven’t always enjoyed such sweeping powers. If enough people feel that corporations wield too much power, they can pressure their governments to bring in appropriate legislation. They can push to have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms amended so that corporations are once again regarded as businesses rather than persons. It might be a difficult battle, but one thing is certain: if it’s not undertaken, corporations will continue to increase their power in our society. Next week: A look at the corporate presence in our governments and schools.

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