Those in favour of creating a federal right to repair law say the government should avoid shaping such legislation according to the wishes of special interest lobbyists as Ottawa gets set to launch consultations on the issue.
Ottawa signalled in its March budget that it would study the need for legislation to ban the sale of products that aren't intended to last and reinforce consumers' ability to repair the home appliances and electronics they buy.
"Devices and appliances should be easy to repair, spare parts should be readily accessible, and companies should not be able to prevent repairs with complex programming or hard-to-obtain bespoke parts," the budget document stated.
It highlighted copyright rules that prevent anyone other than a cellphone manufacturer from making what should be a simple fix, as well as restrictions on the interoperability of farming equipment.
"By cutting down on the number of devices and appliances that are thrown out, we will be able to make life more affordable for Canadians and protect our environment."
National right to repair rules would be especially critical in the agriculture, health-care and consumer goods sectors, said Alissa Centivany, an assistant professor in the faculty of information and media studies at Western University.
Repairs for agricultural equipment often face "egregious" restrictions, she said, pointing to John Deere, which prevents third-party repair technicians from fixing tractors by restricting replacement parts and information resources, as well as through technology.
"Even if the tractor is repaired correctly with official John Deere parts, it still requires an authorized John Deere service technician to come out and basically plug their computer into the tractor, press a button to basically tell the tractor that it can work again," said Centivany.
"Time is of the essence in the agriculture sector and when a farmer can't have their equipment working, that can result in huge losses, particularly during planting and harvesting season."
She said research shows biomedical engineers who are trained to fix medical equipment have also seen their work impeded on a regular basis by repair restrictions — a problem that can have dire consequences in remote communities where an authorized technician may not be readily accessible.
"There's a huge asymmetry of power between manufacturers and consumers that's due largely, I think, to concentration in the market," Centivany said.
"We need some corrections there to temper anticompetitive practices."
The issue has seen recent movement at both the federal and provincial levels.
A bill introduced last week by Quebec's justice minister would ban the sale of products whose obsolescence is planned and require repair services be available at a reasonable price. Manufacturers would also be required to ensure products can be repaired with ordinary tools and without causing irreversible damage.
The province said the measure would be the first of its kind in Canada.
At the federal level, a private member’s bill introduced by Liberal MP Wilson Miao in February 2022 awaits third reading in the House of Commons. Centivany said the bill, which targets digital locks used to protect copyrighted works, at first seemed promising but has been watered down with amendments that could carve out exceptions.
Natasha Tusikov, an associate professor in the Department of Social Science at York University, said it's important that the upcoming federal consultation include a broad range of views, rather than prioritizing industry voices. She said industry lobbyists have often held sway in these discussions because they have money and resources to advocate for their interests
"If they're really interested in this, make an effort to identify those smaller actors that are disproportionately affected. This is small mom and pop retailers, this is people who buy things at second-hand stores or online and this is people who buy something and they want it to last," said Tusikov.
"They don't want a fridge or a drier or a new stereo system or a phone to only last two years, when they spent what they thought was a considerable amount of money."
She said the lack of such protections in Canada places the country behind its counterparts, such as the U.S. and Australia.
"Amongst our G7, G8 colleagues, we're behind the eight ball," she said. "I would say the United States is far ahead of where Canada is."
U.S. President Joe Biden has embraced the right to repair movement, signing an executive order in 2021 encouraging the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules against restrictions on independent repairs of devices and equipment.
Later that year, Apple announced it would let some iPhone and Mac users fix their own phones, marking a sharp turnaround after the company long prohibited anyone but company-approved technicians from repairing its proprietary parts and software.
Tusikov noted that all 50 U.S. states have broached the topic, with legislation at least proposed to strengthen local right to repair rules.
"These laws have only been successful in a tiny handful of cases, but at least in the United States, that debate has started," she said.
"You have policymakers, legislators who have heard from various sides of the issue. They're starting to have a vocabulary and discussion about this issue."
— With files from The Associated Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.
Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press