There's a new superhero of sorts in our midst. Robert Basile is the force behind the Ketchup Patriot campaign, fighting for Canadian jobs and urging his fellow citizens to buy local.
Basile, a Toronto high school teacher, was inspired by the saga of French's ketchup, a story that included a patriotic and viral Facebook post, lots of social media backlash and the country's biggest grocery chain bowing to customer complaints.
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He's selling T-shirts and travelling the province to encourage people to buy local and think before they make their next purchase.
French's, most famous for its mustard, recently entered the ketchup market, and earlier this year promised to use only tomatoes grown in Leamington, Ont., for its ketchup.
That inspired Brian Fernandez of Orillia, Ont., to post on Facebook about the decision. The post went viral, sparking patriotic fervour and buy-Canadian sentiment around the country.
"That one Facebook post, it created so much buzz. That's what spawned it," Basile said of the origin of the Ketchup Patriot.
"It became evident there's more to this story than ketchup."
Not long after Fernandez's post went viral, Loblaws decided to no longer stock French's ketchup. About 24 hours later, the chain reversed its decision after public outcry online.
'It's about Canadians understanding where their products come from and how their purchase can affect other Canadians.' - Robert Basile, A.K.A. the Ketchup Patriot
"Ketchup was the catalyst, it was a great starting point, but it's beyond that. It's not about French's or Heinz. It's about Canadians understanding where their products come from and how their purchase can affect other Canadians," Basile said. "When you make a purchase, you have power. So, exercise that power methodically, be critical and support Canadians when you can."
French's uses Leamington tomatoes, which are turned into tomato paste at Highbury Canco, a food processing company located in the former Heinz plant there. The paste is shipped to Ohio and bottled and sold as ketchup in Canada.
In 2014, Heinz pulled up stakes in Leamington, throwing nearly 1,000 people out of work. Highbury has picked up a significant amount of work and given many people in Leamington jobs.
"Being from Toronto, one thing I realize is there are times I go to the store and I don't think about where that product comes from. That purchase impacts people in other smaller communities I may not be aware of," Basile said. "This is about understanding where our products come from."
Flying the flag
Basile's wife is from Essex County, which is home to Leamington and neighbours Windsor, so he's acutely aware of what manufacturing and agribusiness mean to the region.
"As I started visiting [family], I recognized that manufacturing jobs in Windsor are the lifeline of Windsor. And again, with Leamington, we seem to forget how important it is to keep good, well-paying jobs in small communities. Being from Toronto, we forget," he said.
As a way to remind consumers of that fact, Basile is selling — and proudly wearing — T-shirts made in Ontario and emblazoned with the words "Ketchup Patriot" printed inside what looks to be the French's mustard flag.
"We're not here to sell shirts. We're here to spread a message," he said.
'It had to be Leamington'
Basile set up shop at the Leamington Farmers Market on Easter weekend and sold out of the shirts, at $20 a pop.
"I just want people to talk about what they're doing with their money and how it affects our future. Local products, local jobs, made in Canada. It's your money, you can make a difference."
Basile said he will "definitely" be making the roughly four-hour trip back to Leamington this coming weekend.
"Going to Leamington, I had to do that out of respect. It had to be Leamington, it had to be the starting point for this," he said. "This is the continuation of the discussion we're having.
"Sharing Facebook posts is really easy to do, which is great. But I think we need to do more. We need to go beyond armchair advocacy. We need to go into communities and spread a message. The shirt is a component that allows further dialogue."