Buy American? No thanks, Canadians starting to say

Trade issues with the United States have many Canadians feeling uncharacteristically patriotic of late, and they say they're choosing to express that in their purchasing decisions.

Trade dispute has some Canadians feeling more patriotic at the checkout counter

Trade issues with the United States have left Canadians feeling more patriotic of late, and some are choosing to express that with their purchasing decisions. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

The town of Halton Hills, Ont., may seem like an unlikely locale for a burgeoning consumer movement. But the tiny town northwest of Toronto finds itself in the vanguard of the latest trade battle between Canada and the United States: a movement to stop buying American.

On June 11, the town council voted unanimously in favour of a resolution that would call on the town to "take proactive action to support and protect Canadian interests" by buying Canadian-made items in favour of U.S. ones, in reaction to the White House's recent moves to implement tariffs on Canadian goods.

The resolution is non-binding, but for a town that Mayor Rick Bonnette proudly proclaims is the most patriotic in Canada — the town had almost as many flags on display last Canada Day as it has residents, he's quick to note — it's a significant symbolic gesture.

"We don't want to see families negatively affected by ideology and protectionism," Bonnette says, which is why the town is encouraging residents to stop buying American products and to buy Canadian alternatives wherever possible.

"If you don't push back against a bully, he'll know who to pick on."

Growing movement

Halton Hills residents aren't the only Canadians tired of feeling pushed around.

Quebec resident Jessica Brown says she's doing anything she can to buy local. The real estate agent from Knowlton, Que., says she was spurred to action by what she calls Trump's "ridiculous" comments about Canadian dairy at the recent G7 summit.

"We have to do something," she says, "and I think if we don't start doing some small measure, all of us, then this thing is just going to keep getting out of hand."

For Brown, her strategy starts at the grocery store, where she buys Canadian fruits and vegetables as much as possible. "When I sent my husband to the grocery store I said specifically, 'Get Quebec strawberries,' and he came back with U.S. strawberries.

"I almost made him take it back," she laughs.

Canadian steel is just one of the products that have been caught in the middle of the current trade dispute (Tara Walton/Canadian Press)

Real estate broker Beverly DeWinter from nearby Brome, Que. is on board, too. She says she's no longer shopping at the local Walmart "because by going to those stores you are supporting American companies."

DeWinter, who was born in the U.S., says she's not the only one in her social group to be cancelling travel plans down south, too.

"I just keep hearing among different people who are going to go on holiday to the States … who are starting to change their plans," she says. "Support Canada. Go on holiday in Canada."

For Winnipeg resident Shelley Cook, images of the recent U.S. immigration crackdown on children at the border were enough to change any plans she had to go to the U.S. in the near future.

"I don't want to spend my money there," she says. "I don't want to be there."

Cook, DeWinter and others may be changing travel plans, but on a broader level, there's little evidence that's happening en masse so far. According to the latest Statistics Canada data, Canadian travel to the United States has risen in the first half of 2018, and is now 8.7 per cent higher than it was a year ago.

Prof. Sylvain Charlebois from Dalhousie University in Halifax, who studies food economics, says that's not surprising. He suspects any widespread movement to turn away from American products will be a lot of talk, with little action to back it up.

When Canadian beef was hit by global blockades in 2003 because of an outbreak of mad cow disease, Canadians rallied in support of Canadian beef, making the country the first on record to see its domestic demand for beef actually go up after the first recorded case of the disease.

But it didn't last. Within months, the rally was over. Canadian beef sales plunged and took more than two years to get back to their previous level. "This is because consumers have busy lives, fixed habits, and most importantly, specific budgets," he says.

Nowhere is that more crucial than in the grocery aisle. It's one thing to buy Canadian produce in the summer when there's a bumper crop to choose from. It's quite another to ensure that packaged foods are entirely Canadian made.

"Processed foods … will have all sorts of ingredients that may actually come from Canada, some of them may come from the United States," he says. "The product itself may be finished either in Canada or the United States, so it does get confusing at times."

Ultimately, Charlebois suspects that any anti-American consumer movement will fizzle out once what he calls "cupboard economics" factor in.

"People will feel patriotic, look for that Canadian flag," he says, "but beyond that I suspect people will move on and do other things."