The year was 1947. World War II had come to an end, and nations across the globe were rebuilding. For Canada, that meant a return to free market capitalism after years of government-mandated freezes on wages and the price of goods and services. Looking to recover from nearly a decade of thin profit margins, companies began to raise the price on everything from vegetables to automobiles, sending inflation through the roof, and putting a crunch on everyone’s pocketbooks.
When kids in the small town of Ladysmith, Vancouver Island, British Columbia wandered down to the Wigwam Café on April 25, 1947, they were surprised to find that the nickel they’d saved from their allowance would no longer buy the candy bar they craved. The price of chocolate had gone up 60 percent, quite literally overnight, from 5 cents to 8 cents for a 3-ounce candy car.
Rather than accept the price increase, the kids decided to do something about it. They hastily scrawled signs, and began marching up and down the street, singing an impromptu protest song:
We want a 5 cent chocolate bar
8 cents is going too darn far
We want a 5 cent chocolate bar
Oh, we want a 5 cent bar
Word spread quickly and soon nearly every kid in town had joined the “Chocolate Bar Strike.”
After the local paper snapped a picture of the little protesters in front of the Wigwam, kids across Canada began picketing their own corner stores carrying signs that read, “What this country needs is a good 5 cent bar!” and “Candy is dandy, but 8 cents isn’t handy!” One of the biggest protests occurred on April 30, when 200 kids marched on the steps of the British Columbia capitol building, shutting down government business for the day. In Burnaby, traffic was clogged for two hours as kids paraded on their bicycles down a major thoroughfare. Ten kids blasting bugles led 60 classmates in a march on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. Five hundred sign-carrying students from three area high schools gathered at the Christie Pits Park in Toronto. The movement continued with additional protests in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Quebec City, and throughout the Maritimes, with police being called out to break up the larger gatherings. In all, over 3000 kids were said to have signed pledge cards promising to boycott candy until the price was brought down. Within days, the sale of candy bars in Canada had dropped 80 percent.
For the most part, adults saw the Chocolate Bar Strike as an amusing but profound metaphor for their own struggles with the new post-war economy. Many adult-led community organizations supported the candy strike by printing protest signs and pledge cards, bringing snacks for the kids on the frontlines, and by standing with the youngsters as they rallied against price gouging.
Naturally, candy companies defended the higher price, saying they too were feeling the pressure of post-war inflation. For them, raw materials such as milk, sugar, and cocoa bean processing had become more expensive since the government price freezes had been lifted. They also tried to convince customers that they were simply following the American market, where candy averaged between 5 and 10 cents for the same size bar; Canadian kids had it good at only 8 cents.
The movement continued to gain momentum until May 3, when a planned march on Toronto, meant to be the biggest protest yet, was thwarted by a story in the Toronto Evening Telegram. An anonymous source had informed the newspaper that the entire candy strike was being orchestrated by the National Federation of Labour Youth (NFLY), an organization that helped establish labor unions in Canada. While they were one of many groups to support the kids, NFLY had members affiliated with the Communist Party, which led the ultra-conservative Telegram to propose they were nothing more than a front for Moscow:
“Chocolate bars and a world revolution may seem poles apart, but to the devious, Communist mind, there is a close relationship. They don’t realize it, but the indignant students parading with their placards demanding a 5 cent candy bar have become another instrument in the Communist grand strategy of the creation of chaos.”
The paper claimed that NFLY was recruiting from the ranks of the kids, as well as using the children to further their own communist agenda. In a 2003 interview, NFLY co-founder Bill Stewart refuted these claims; the group simply wanted to encourage kids to speak out when they felt they’d been wronged.
Whether these allegations were true or not, the candy boycott was now painted red. Wary of being labeled “Communist,” supportive organizations disowned the strike, and parents forbade their children from attending any further protests. The candy strike fizzled, and the price of a chocolate bar remained 8 cents.
In The Five Cent War, a documentary about the candy strike, surviving members of the original Ladysmith protesters were interviewed about their part in the 1947 boycott. Everyone agreed that communism was the furthest thing from their young minds. All they wanted was for their voices to be heard, and to keep a little more allowance in their pockets.