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Wal to Wal: a road trip

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When thinking of a road trip, one usually envisions a concert, party, or vacation and perhaps even a little debauchery. There are those, however, who prefer to spend their adventure in Wal-Mart parking lots.

Wal-Town is a film that follows a group of Concordia University student activists as they travel across Canada in an effort to inform consumers of what they consider to be the less-than-ideal practices of Wal-Mart.

The film was presented by the Arusha Centre's Action Film Series in conjunction with the Fair Trade Week and was played at the Plaza theatre on Wed., Nov. 21.

The Arusha Centre is a Calgary-based, collectively-run, member-supported, non-profit organization that provides resources and programming on local and global social justice issues. Their Action Film Series was created with the mandate of showing and discussing films that have important social messages. Arusha info-active coordinator, Sharon Stevens explained it is important to have an environment where the message behind the film can be analyzed as well.

"Often when you watch a documentary, the information is pretty overwhelming and people often feel that it is so huge that they cannot do anything about it," said Stevens. "We like to have access to resources before, during and after each film. We try and liven up the experience."

The Wal-Town showing featured a live band playing before the film and a number of speakers to address any questions afterward.

In Wal-Town, the activists tended to take a non-confrontational approach to begin with; handing out pamphlets and information on what they deemed to be the negative aspects of Wal-Mart without being overly aggressive. They changed their tactics when it became apparent that their message was not sinking in to the degree they had hoped. Stevens noted this change of tactics paid off.

"At first [the Wal-Town activists] were just handing out pamphlets and boring people to death at the doorway [of Wal-Marts], but then they got more lively and painted themselves yellow and it really seemed to work [at engaging the shoppers]," said Stevens.

Ezra Winton, one of the leaders of the activist group and co-founder of the non-profit uberculture Collective explained the change of tactics also had another dimension.

"If you want to get on television news you have to be visually intriguing," he said. "If [the TV crew] shows up at a Wal-Mart and there are six people handing out pamphlets, it's not really breaking news."

The attempt to engage people through the use of theatrics paid off for the Wal-Town activists. Stevens explained how the Arusha organization had used similar tactics to get the public's attention.

"We taught people to stand on stilts," said Stevens. "[The public] will stop and listen to somebody who is twelve feet high. If you stand out like that with a bright costume, people will tend to stop and pay attention to what you have to say."

Winton got the idea to do the two-part, cross-Canada tour when the introduction of a Wal-Mart in his home town of Courtney, B.C., brought about far-reaching changes.

"I remember how the landscape of the town change dramatically due to Wal-Mart being built there and thought it would be cool to do a road-trip across Canada and see if it was having the same effect on other towns, and to talk to the Canadian public," said Winton.

Though critical of many of Wal-Mart's practices, Winton was not arguing for a boycott of the retailer.

"It's not about preaching to people or telling them what they should and shouldn't do--it's about having dialogue and discussing all the things that we think are important issues," he said.

One of the largest complaints the Wal-Town activists had of Wal-Mart was their anti-union stance. The retail giant closed its only unionized North American store in Jonquiere, Quebec, in 2005. Although Wal-Mart claimed they closed the location because it was not profitable, the Quebec Labour Relation Board subsequently found Wal-Mart guilty of closing the location to avoid the union.

Winton felt this closure is indicative of a wider anti-union bias throughout Canada.

"There is a real anti-organized labour climate right now in Canada that is utterly disgusting and the ignorance that runs across the cultural landscape, from teenagers to people in their fifties about unions and organized labour is mind-boggling," said Winton.

The experience was not all doom and gloom, though. Winton noted the film is unrepresentative in that it does not show the magnitude of support that his group received. All across Canada there were people who took them in and fed them or gave them a place to sleep--something the film fails to portray.

"I'm optimistic that there are small steps being taken all the time and activists from all different areas are achieving goals that will lead to a better world," said Winton. "The film kind of leaves you feeling that it's an impossible uphill battle with the public but it's not. The problem is curbing habitual consumption. That's the battle."

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