There are good arguments to be made for economic boycotts when they have clear objectives, are based on solid ethical and political considerations, and have a reasonable chance to succeed. Some of them changed history
When the grape producers of California were exploiting Filipino and Chicano workers and refusing to negotiate in spite of a strike, in 1967 Cesar Chavez sought to mobilize broad consumer support and public opinion through a boycott of California grapes, which by 1970 was so effective it resulted in contracts and improved wages and working conditions for 10,000 unionized workers.
The boycott of South African products in the 1980s was widely observed across the globe as a protest against Apartheid, which meant minority Whites dominated political and economic power. Our own Société des alcools refused to stock South African wines even as our government under Brian Mulroney imposed economic sanctions and encouraged other Commonwealth members to follow suit.
Today, there are reports and activity on social media indicating that some Canadians have initiated boycotts of American goods, are cancelling vacation plans south of the border, or are thinking of either or both. These moves are in reaction to U.S. policies under Donald Trump. Many are opposed to both what he is doing and how he is going about it, including such developments as U.S. tariffs against Canadian steel and aluminum, and rhetoric and actions against free trade, including threats to do the same in the automotive sector. There is pressure on Canada to scrap supply management in the dairy and poultry industries.
Many Canadians are rightly unhappy with the U.S. treatment of asylum seekers, separating parents and young children, and putting the latter behind bars. And the U.S. reputation in international diplomacy has been severely damaged by its abrogation of the nuclear deal with Iran.
While it is understandable that many Canadians are disgusted with how Trump and the Republican-dominated Senate and House of Representatives are decimating health-care, support for education, and the social-safety net, and how they are treating asylum seekers, we do not believe that boycott is the way. For one thing, as Pierre Trudeau famously observed, living next to the U.S. is in some ways like sleeping next to an elephant. In any economic war, because we are so much smaller, we are poorly placed to win. Moral suasion, political pressure, and focused tit-for-tat retaliation by our government for any tariff unilaterally imposed are more likely to succeed.
More importantly, the possibility of retaliation from our American friends for any broadly based boycott movement should not be overlooked. Our tourism sector is reaping benefits from the low value of the Canadian dollar and American tourism is essential: The U.S. remains Canada’s largest source of visitors, the main foreign source of revenue for our tourism industry of almost $80 billion.
Why should we be deprived of visits to the U.S. and contact with Americans, who tend to be outgoing, friendly, and prepared to discuss issues. After all, Trump won in large part because Democrats stayed home rather than vote for Hillary Clinton. Trump supporters are not all right-wing bigots and deplorables. You can learn a lot by talking to them about their attitudes and motivations. And as we all know, visits to the U.S., especially cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, can be a tremendous learning experience.
Ever since Socrates, dialogue has been a core element of developing understanding and insights, far preferable to erecting walls. We cannot win a boycott war, and since there is much to gain by interacting with our neighbours, we can only hope that our government can negotiate its way out of current border battles by persuading the Trump administration that there is no going back from our intertwined economies, where Canada, with our population of almost 37 million, remains America’s best customer, and most loyal ally.