#BoycottUSA movement is anecdotal — so far

OTTAWA—Maybe it’s a sign of the times that patrons of the Made in Canada Gifts shop want to talk about Donald Trump.

In this summer of the trade war, the brightly lit store is like a mecca for the Trump boycotter. Just steps away from Parliament Hill and the National War Memorial, patrons can peruse an array of patriotic goods and nod in agreement with the cardboard cut-out of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is holding a sign that reads, “Souvenirs That Don’t Suck!”

Valerie Ventola, the store owner, says more and more people are coming in to talk about the tariff battle between Canada and the United States. As social media lights up with calls to #BoycottUSA and #BuyCanadian, Ventola says she’s noticed a hunger for Canadian stuff.

“It’s growing,” she said, standing in front of the red moose head that graces her store logo, “and people are specifically referring to Donald Trump.”

But then Ventola’s employee, Sheldon Schultz, chimed in. “That’s so funny,” he said. “I haven’t seen it be a factor … Nobody has come in and talked about the tariffs.”

One large travel agency has actually seen an increase in planned trips to the U.S., a destination for roughly 20 million Canadian tourists who spend about $ 20 billion there each year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“We faced the same scenario when Trump got voted in and I’ve been asked frequently by the media about the so called ‘Trump Slump,’” said Allison Wallace, spokesperson for the Flight Centre Travel Group, in an email to the Star. The company has actually seen a 15-per-cent increase in travel to the U.S. from May 2017 to May 2018, she said.

“While anecdotally we hear some clients saying they’ll choose to travel elsewhere, our numbers simply don’t show it.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t something afoot. Many have professed their decisions to cross out American goods on their shopping lists or cancel vacations south of the border.

Mitch Lalumiere, a 59-year-old retiree who lives outside Ottawa, planned a June road trip through New England with his wife, a three-week jaunt that would cost an expected $ 10,000. But then he heard Trump and his team lashing out at Trudeau after the G7 Summit in Quebec. Trump called the Canadian prime minister “very dishonest and weak” and one of the president’s advisors said there was a “special place in hell” for Trudeau. And that was it for Lalumiere and his wife. They cancelled their New England trip and went to British Columbia instead.

“The fact that it’s not just talk anymore, that it’s action. I said, well, two people can play at that game. We have actions, too,” Lalumiere said. “Any trips to the U.S. are definitely not in the cards at this time.”

Similar sentiments are being voiced in the political realm. In Halton Hills, a city of 61,000 outside Toronto, Mayor Rick Bonette teamed up with local councillor Clark Somerville to pass a resolution encouraging citizens to boycott American-made products. Bonette, a fervent opponent of “Buy American” protectionism in the U.S., said the idea is to highlight the serious economic implications of a trade war with Canada’s main economic partner and show people how they can participate in Canada’s response at the local level.

“We should be standing together. You’re dealing with a bully. There’s no two ways about it. It’s time to show Canadian backbone,” Bonnette said.

Darren Dahl, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, said it’s difficult to predict the impact of any anti-U.S. boycott amongst Canadian consumers. But typically, such movements have mixed results, he said, because only certain segments of the population — people perhaps employed in affected industries — feel strongly that something must be done. Marketing experts call this “segmentation outcome,” he said.

“There’s some chunks in society that this type of message and this type of call to action will resonate (with),” Dahl said. “But for a big chunk of society, it’s not going to fire them up, and they’re not really going to do anything.”

Another factor that will help determine the size of the boycott will be consumer choice, Dahl said. For some U.S. products, most famously Heinz Ketchup, there are made-in-Canada alternatives, Dahl said. But for others, it will be less clear what to buy or avoid, given the integration of the Canada-U.S. economies after decades of free trade and cross-border commerce, he said.

Karl Littler, vice-president of public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada, said people should be careful their boycott is targeted in a way that doesn’t harm fellow Canadians. Some U.S. chain stores, like Wal-Mart or Starbucks, employ Canadians and sometimes sell Canadian products. “You’ve got to be careful that you’re not actually damaging your neighbour or your kid’s summer job prospects,” Littler said.

“Obviously there are people who are doing something,” he added, referring to the boycott. “There’s going to be some incremental effect. I just don’t know what it adds up to.”

Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga

TORONTO STAR

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