Super-consuming is the first manifestation of our North American Root, as part of one of the oldest and richest colonies in the world.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Quebecers were well known for their thriftiness. But they kind of had to be. How else were they supposed to raise a bunch of kids on their lowly pittance? The British who were here at the time thought our people were even more frugal and better prepared for possible hardships than the Scots.

“Wealth,” says Aristotle, “consists more in use than in possession.”

Joe reveals that he agrees with the great philosopher when sharing his opinion on what makes him happy:

“My father did odd jobs and collected social assistance during the Depression. We were really poor before Wold War Two broke out, but there were others who still had it rougher and had to live on the streets. Everything I got was handed down to me from my two older brothers: school books, skates, winter coats…even underpants. My mother could fix just about anything with her pedal-powered Singer sewing machine.

I’ve bought myself a whole bunch of new clothes now that the dark days are over. And none of my kids have had to wear hand-me-down underwear. It’s bad enough their father had to. I felt like a hobo! Fernande says clothes aren’t as sturdy as they used to be.

The furniture in my house is pretty modest, but I do have some nice pieces. I had to sleep on smelly mattresses in a single room on St-Hubert Street for six years. You really appreciate having a home of your own after having to live like that.

Have I ever owned a used car? Just one. It was an old jalopy I bought on Lajeunesse Street. Man, did I get screwed on that piece of junk! But that doesn’t matter anymore. I was young at the time. It was a black Ford with only “2000 miles that used to belong to an elderly doctor.” If only I’d taken a minute to look at the roof of the car I would’ve known right away that my doctor used to drive a cab! The smart thing to do is buy a new car and trade it in every couple of years. And if you have a new car, you always have something worth selling if you need some cash.

Debts? Sure. I have debts just like everyone else does, but I don’t spend beyond my means. (Fernande lists the house, the car, the Hammond organ and a loan taken out from a friend. Joe is clearly annoyed.). Yeah, yeah, that’s what I said! We have debts just like everyone else does. Do you hear her going off?! It’s not like we need to worry about the Lacombe (bankruptcy) law! Have you ever seen me run to finance companies to pay our mortgage? Do you really think Eaton’s is going to repossess Chantal’s organ? Stop being so dramatic! You’re mistaking me for your brother Leo. As long as creditors leave you alone, you don’t really have any debts.”

Joe isn’t Pavlov’s human so much as a consumer making up for lost time. And as for our old habitant dislike of getting in debt, well, let’s just say we left it at the farm before moving to the big city.

While studying the current state of consumerism in Quebec, sociologist Gérald Fortin noted that, “Based on the latest standards, it’s not enough for people (in Ste-Julienne) to just survive. Today’s consumers want to live, and live well at that. The manufacturing economy that once drove Quebecers has now evolved into a consumer economy. Constantly improving our standard of living has become a main focus for individuals and families alike. Soon, how we spend our money – rather than how we earn it – will become the determining factor in establishing social class. It’s better to give up a little freedom in order to live well than to be fully independent but poor.”

Quebecers are part of the North American consumer society and they love to consume. Pluck any of their 36 Heartstrings and you’ll get them to buy something whether they do it in good faith or out of spite.

We may choose to take data from Toronto market studies with a grain of salt because of all the Frenglishizing involved, but the fact of the matter remains that in early 1977 Chatelaine magazine published an article saying that Quebec women were about half as likely to bother looking for bargains when grocery shopping as their English-speaking counterparts (0.58 times per month vs. 1.21 times). (Frenglishizing occurs when surveys that are developed in English – usually in Toronto – are translated into French to be conducted in Quebec. Participant answers are given in French and then translated into English before being interpreted by English-speaking analysts.)

Do behavioural psychologists have any idea why Quebecers bought $15 million worth of chewing gum in 1975 alone? That’s almost as much as the entire budget for the Quebec Department of Consumer Affairs. Did you know that chewing gum was considered a highly anti-social act in Russia up until 1975?

I’ve always believed it’s as difficult to teach adult consumers how to make rational purchases as it is to teach French to those old English-speaking MPs in Ottawa. For a long time a citizen’s right to information about consumerism was limited to the publication of tons of brochures, even though there were still half a million Quebecers who couldn’t read in 1960.

We should be teaching our children how to be responsible consumers while they’re in school to help prevent them from becoming adults who can’t tell when they’ve had enough and who keep gorging to the point of choking.

The word “consume” doesn’t exist in Quebec slang. Joe Tremblay prefers the word “buy.”

“Buying things isn’t a mortal sin. But if you think about it, nothing in the world is really worth buying. We don’t need more credit laws. What we need is to stop getting screwed one way or the other. If buying stuff makes you happy and you’re not getting in debt then don’t worry about it. But if it doesn’t and you’re getting into trouble, then you need to take a long hard look at what you’re doing.”

As we all know, Quebecers are sensitive to messages sent out by any means of communication. A short blurb published in a daily newspaper (without much professional concern) led to a self-created bread shortage that lasted a whole week in early February 1977. A good ten days after everyone stopped panicking you could still find trash cans overflowing with spoiled bread all across town.

Researchers at a US university studied the contents of garbage cans in three different neighbourhoods in an average Minnesota town. After doing so for one whole year they concluded that more than one third of the food purchased by an average family ends up in the trash, over half of the materials disposed of are recyclable (newspapers, bottles and so on) and the biggest wasters are not necessarily the ones with the most money.

In 1976, every single Canadian produced an average of seven pounds of garbage a day.

© 2022 – English translation and website by Lawrence Creaghan. Published online with the permission of Guérin Éditeur Ltée and the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard.