Phil Edmonston, the charismatic, American-born consumer advocate who clashed with automakers and governments and became the first-ever member of Parliament elected in Quebec under the New Democratic Party banner, has died at his home in Panama. He was 78.
Known as “Canada’s Ralph Nader,” Mr. Edmonston fought with companies such as Ford over prematurely rusting cars, exposed automakers’ secret warranties and offered car buyers valuable advice through his annual Lemon-Aid guides, published for four decades.
A self-made man, Mr. Edmonston rose from a troubled childhood to serve in the U.S. military and become a civil-rights advocate before moving to Canada in his 20s. In Quebec, he reinvented himself as a campaigner, columnist and talented speaker. He learned French and managed to get elected for the NDP by a wide margin in Chambly, a largely francophone riding south of Montreal, in 1990.
After three years in Ottawa, where he clashed with his fellow party members over constitutional issues, he decided not to run in the 1993 federal election. A year later, he and second wife, Michelle Brion, left Canada, initially living in Florida and since 2006 in Panama, where Mr. Edmonston died of melanoma on Dec. 2, 2022. His death was not widely reported at the time.
“Phil was best in a team of one,” his wife said in an interview. The two met during a joint appearance on a radio show, where Mr. Edmonston attacked Bell Canada over a rate increase and Ms. Brion defended the company as a public-relations spokeswoman. “He did not take orders easily and he didn’t like to compromise,” she said, describing her late husband as “idealistic, optimistic, energetic and creative.”
Louis Phillip Edmonston was born on May 26, 1944, in Washington, the son of Eric Edmonston, a repair shop owner, and his wife, Twyla. Phil had a complicated childhood. He had two older sisters and later discovered he also had two half-siblings from his parents’ earlier relationships.
Phillip’s father died when he was five and his mother soon faced financial problems. The children ended up in orphanages but young Phillip escaped and moved back in with his mother. He made money bagging groceries and delivering newspapers. He dropped out of school in Grade 8. “He got bored easily but was super bright,” his wife said.
At 16, Mr. Edmonston signed up with the U.S. military and was shipped off to Panama, where he got his high school equivalency and took college courses while working as a medic. He drove an ambulance during the violent protests against U.S. ownership of the Panama Canal in 1964.
On returning to the United States, Mr. Edmonston enrolled at Bowie State College (now a university), a historically Black institution in Maryland. It was an unusual choice for a white student in 1968 but because of his experience growing up in working-class areas of Washington, Mr. Edmonston had always felt a kinship with African-Americans.
At Bowie State, he helped organize a protest over racial inequities and supported U.S. veterans opposed to the Vietnam War. While on vacation in Acapulco in the late 1960s, he met a Quebec woman who inspired the young Mr. Edmonston to move north.
In Montreal, Mr. Edmonston took a French immersion course for immigrants and started law school at McGill University but dropped out. He began campaigning for consumer rights, setting up the Automobile Protection Association (APA) in 1969, running it from the back room of his wife’s beauty parlour. On a visit to the U.S., he saw friends at Mr. Nader’s Center for Auto Safety and found an internal Ford Motor Co. report that disclosed how Ford vehicles rusted sooner than those of the competition.
The Center for Auto Safety was too busy on other issues so Mr. Edmonston decided to pursue the problem in Canada, founding the Rusty Ford Owners group, which sued Ford. After a long fight, the federal government and automakers, including Ford, agreed to a national corrosion code that guaranteed cars against perforation for five years.
“He was larger than life and usually commanded the room by force of personality,” said George Iny, who began working at the APA as a summer intern in 1982 and ended up succeeding Mr. Edmonston as executive director. “He wasn’t afraid of a rumble. He liked to mix things up. He was excited by the concept of reform.”
The quality of cars in the 1970s was terrible and consumers began to expect more. Mr. Edmonston was brilliant at taking an issue and getting maximum attention to it through news conferences and media events. “He was a networker before the internet,” Mr. Iny said.
He was active in lobbying government for better consumer protection. Mr. Iny said that the Quebec Consumer Protection Act of 1978 includes a section that provides a three-month warranty on car repairs, mandatory estimates and return of old parts. The provisions were copied from the APA’s code of conduct for garages.
A brilliant tactician, Mr. Edmonston backed many successful campaigns along with the APA, and the quality of vehicles improved. The average life cycle of a car in the 1970s was just seven years, while now it is 15, Mr. Iny said.
Mr. Edmonston was critical of automotive journalists, alleging they were just providing free PR for automakers. “Car of the Year awards are pure baloney,” he wrote. “New car buyers would be better served by a Ouija board’s buying recommendation than a Car of the Year designation put out by any publication.”
He was also outspoken on municipal issues, going after outlaw tow-truck operators who would impound cars and charge drivers high fees to release their vehicles, forcing the City of Montreal to regulate the business. He also went after oil companies on gas prices.
Mr. Edmonston left the APA and ran for the NDP in Chambly against the incumbent Progressive Conservative Richard Grisé. Mr. Edmonston lost in the 1988 general election but a day later, Mr. Grisé was charged and eventually pleaded guilty to 11 counts of fraud and breach of trust. He resigned.
Mr. Edmonston won easily in the by-election that followed, becoming one of the few dual U.S.Canadian citizens ever to serve in the Commons…
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