Pou­tine in Qatar

When iconic Cana­dian fran­chises go global

The Walrus - - CON­TENTS - by Corey Mintz

Pou­tine in Qatar When iconic Cana­dian fran­chises go global

Ryan smolkin draws the line at North Korea. “I wouldn’t just deal with any­body,” says the founder and ceo of Smoke’s Pou­tinerie — a fast-food com­pany that now has about 150 lo­ca­tions in Canada and the United States — while list­ing the coun­tries, some run by op­pres­sive regimes, where he is seek­ing fran­chise part­ner­ships. “I’m not gonna be sell­ing out just be­cause some­one’s got money.” Smolkin started the folksy Cana­dian chain with a sin­gle lo­ca­tion in Toronto just ten years ago. He had ten by 2010, twenty in 2011, and forty in 2012, both ben­e­fit­ing from and fu­elling the coun­try­wide pou­tine craze. In an­other five years, Smolkin pre­dicts the com­pany will have 1,300 lo­ca­tions around the world—that’s 767 per­cent growth. Though Smolkin’s prod­uct is es­sen­tially french fries with cheese curds and gravy, the shops sparkle with long menus, fea­tur­ing ev­ery con­ceiv­able add-on, from jerk chicken to per­o­gies. The Que­bec com­fort food will be cus­tom­ized in new mar­kets, cater­ing to lo­cal tastes as needed by, for ex­am­ple, sub­sti­tut­ing lamb for pork in the Mid­dle East. Smolkin has just signed a deal for twelve lo­ca­tions in Qatar and is in talks with peo­ple in Rus­sia, Turkey, Pak­istan, Iraq, and Iran. Smolkin also has a signed a let­ter of in­tent to open thirty-five lo­ca­tions in Saudi Ara­bia, which are cur­rently on hold fol­low­ing ten­sions be­tween the Cana­dian and Saudi gov­ern­ments; Smolkin hopes he can re­sume his ex­pan­sion there soon. Pou­tine is far from the high­est-pro­file Cana­dian ex­port to Saudi Ara­bia: fa­mously, we have been sell­ing arms and mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles to that coun­try. Asked if Saudi Ara­bia’s hu­man rights record is a con­cern for his busi­ness, Smolkin de­clines to com­ment. “I won’t get wrapped up in pol­i­tics,” he says. But en­ter­ing the mar­ket in this coun­try — which Amnesty In­ter­na­tional has found to prac­tise re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion, cur­tail free­dom of ex­pres­sion, tor­ture de­tainees, and limit women’s rights—means mak­ing de­ci­sions to sup­port or chal­lenge ex­ist­ing hu­man rights stan­dards, and Smoke’s is far from the only Cana­dian food brand fac­ing th­ese choices. In 2017, Sec­ond Cup Cof­fee Com­pany Inc. opened a lo­ca­tion in Tehran, its first in Iran. The Cana­dian cof­fee chain has fran­chise lo­ca­tions in thirty-three coun­tries, sev­eral with ques­tion­able hu­man rights records, in­clud­ing Azer­bai­jan, An­gola, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Le­banon, Malaysia, Oman, Pak­istan, Qatar, Ro­ma­nia, Saudi Ara­bia, and Ye­men. (The com­pany de­clined to com­ment about hu­man rights abuses in th­ese coun­tries.) “If you go to the cof­fee shops in the Mid­dle East, Tim Hor­tons and Sec­ond Cup— and I’ve been to many of them — you ac­tu­ally see how they’re so pop­u­lar,” says Walid He­jazi, a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional busi­ness at the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment and a board mem­ber of the Canada Arab Busi­ness Coun­cil. “Any­thing Cana­dian has a huge ap­peal to peo­ple in that part of the world be­cause Cana­di­ans are known for be­ing very po­lite and open....that’s why so many Cana­dian brands do so well in the Mid­dle East.” (Tim Hor­tons, a formerly Cana­dian brand now owned by a global in­vest­ment firm, plans to open more than 1,500 lo­ca­tions in China over the next decade.) It’s un­likely that a café or pou­tine fran­chise is go­ing to di­rectly en­gage in the mod­ern- day slav­ery the likes of which we are see­ing dur­ing, say, the con­struc­tion of the Qatar foot­ball sta­dium — where, in many cases, mi­grant work­ers had their pass­ports con­fis­cated, their pay with­held, and were tricked into debt, an Amnesty In­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion found. But new mar­kets do present labour and sourc­ing chal­lenges. Open­ing shop in a coun­try known for deny­ing cit­i­zens ba­sic hu­man rights means re­spon­si­bil­ity rests with an in­di­vid­ual com­pany to en­sure that things like work­place-safety stan­dards, en­forced by the govern­ment in Canada but not taken se­ri­ously by some other coun­tries, are made a mat­ter of cor­po­rate pol­icy. “It sounds very naive to me,” says Seema Joshi, head of busi­ness and hu­man rights at the Amnesty In­ter­na­tional Sec­re­tariat. “Gen­er­ally, Cana­di­ans don’t think that Cana­dian com­pa­nies could pos­si­bly be caus­ing or con­tribut­ing to hu­man rights abuses in other coun­tries.” Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s work, she says, shows food com­pa­nies can be im­pli­cated. One ex­am­ple is in In­done­sia, where palm oil pro­duced with child labour ends up in

“If you go to Cana­dian cof­fee shops in the Mid­dle East, you see how they’re so pop­u­lar.”

items from com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Nestlé and Kel­logg’s. In Myan­mar, through a sub­sidiary, Ja­panese brew­ing com­pany Kirin made a fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tion to the mil­i­tary, which is ac­cused of eth­nic cleans­ing. “There is a cor­po­rate re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­spect hu­man rights in global op­er­a­tions,” says Joshi. “It’s a nor­ma­tive stan­dard that has been ac­cepted by the United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Coun­cil.” This means that it is not a law, but all states are taken by the UN to be bound to re­spect this prin­ci­ple. The UN also pub­lishes a guide­book called Cor­po­rate Re­spon­si­bil­ity to Re­spect Hu­man Rights, which elab­o­rates on this stan­dard. “No com­pany has said to our face that ‘no, we don’t have a cor­po­rate re­spon­si­bil­ity,’” Joshi says. “But what they also know is that, within the coun­tries they op­er­ate, there is often no law — most often no law — to hold them to ac­count as to whether or not they do the hu­man rights due dili­gence.” France has gone fur­ther, in 2017 en­act­ing the cor­po­rate duty of vigilance law, re­quir­ing French com­pa­nies to es­tab­lish plans to pre­vent hu­man rights abuses in all their busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing those of large com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing out­side France. In Canada, as is the case for many UN mem­bers, the re­spon­si­bil­ity of hu­man rights en­force­ment falls to busi­nesses them­selves.

He­jazi ar­gues that th­ese ex­pan­sions into coun­tries with hu­man rights abuses are ben­e­fi­cial for the coun­tries in which they take place; he be­lieves that, in ad­di­tion to a pros­per­ous fi­nan­cial ex­change, Canada also ex­ports a pro­gres­sive cul­tural in­flu­ence that he has wit­nessed first-hand. “As I’ve in­ter­acted with peo­ple in Saudi Ara­bia over the last decade, I have seen a sea change in their at­ti­tudes,” he says. He talks about a shift to­ward al­low­ing women to drive and re­duc­ing sep­a­ra­tion be­tween gen­ders—“that’s all be­cause of Western in­flu­ence.” Free-mar­ket economists and hu­man rights ac­tivists are not go­ing to come to a con­sen­sus on the po­lit­i­cal ef­fi­cacy of open mar­kets any time soon — they will con­tinue to de­bate whether in­ter­na­tional in­vest­ment and trade with op­pres­sive regimes opens them up to lib­eral, demo­cratic val­ues or if eco­nomic lever­age bol­sters the strength of au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers. When China’s ac­ces­sion to the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion was be­ing de­bated, then US pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton shared He­jazi’s phi­los­o­phy that cap­i­tal­ism would pro­mote democ­racy. “By join­ing the WTO,” said Clin­ton, speak­ing at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity in 2000, “China is not sim­ply agree­ing to im­port more of our prod­ucts. . . . The more China lib­er­al­izes its econ­omy, the more fully it will lib­er­ate the po­ten­tial of its peo­ple.” Clin­ton’s view, while an ap­peal­ing ideal, hasn’t nec­es­sar­ily been re­flected in out­comes. China re­cently abol­ished term lim­its for the pres­i­dency, ef­fec­tively mak­ing Xi Jin­ping pres­i­dent for life, and has come un­der sharp crit­i­cism for de­tain­ing any­where from tens of thou­sands to up­wards of a mil­lion peo­ple from eth­nic and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties in re-ed­u­ca­tion camps. No trad­ing part­ner has done any­thing about it. There is a lot of Western in­flu­ence in Saudi Ara­bia’s culi­nary land­scape. With it, says He­jazi, comes a moder­a­tion of po­lit­i­cal ideas. This, he be­lieves, is just as valu­able to Cana­di­ans as the bil­lions of dol­lars in trade. “Canada’s en­gage­ment with Saudi Ara­bia has two huge pil­lars. The one pil­lar is a large and ag­gres­sively grow­ing eco­nomic re­la­tion­ship. But se­condly is the im­pact we can have on Saudi Ara­bia through an ex­change of ideas—through stu­dent ex­changes, through busi­ness ex­changes,” he says. “It’s those peo­ple com­ing here and see­ing, oh my God, if men and women are in the same room and women are driv­ing, if peo­ple are able to dis­cuss con­tro­ver­sial is­sues, our so­ci­ety’s not go­ing to crum­ble. . . . It doesn’t have to be seen as a threat.” While iced cof­fee is not go­ing to pro­tect free speech and pou­tine is not go­ing to trans­form a monar­chy into a democ­racy, the po­ten­tial of soft power, He­jazi says, may be more ef­fec­tive than force or sanc­tions. “When you’re very ag­gres­sive in putting pres­sure on th­ese coun­tries, it al­most al­ways back­fires,” says He­jazi. Many peo­ple “see it as a Western power sort of im­pos­ing their view.”

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