An Alberta restaurant’s show of support of oil workers quickly became the catalyst for a boycott of British Columbia.
In response to the B.C. government’s proposal to restrict the flow of bitumen through the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to B.C., Asti Trattoria Italiana, a restaurant in Fort McMurray announced it would no longer serve B.C. wines.
In addition, Alberta premier Rachel Notley has said she is suspending talks on sharing Alberta electricity with B.C.
The story of the wine protest quickly gained national attention, and soon Alberta residents were pledging to boycott British Columbia. They would not buy B.C. fruit, wine or other products, and they would not vacation in British Columbia.
It was an extreme response, but proponents said extreme measures are necessary. The pipeline is needed, and the restrictions will hurt the Alberta oil sands.
Besides, boycotts have been effective in the past.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott, in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and 1956, resulted in changes to racial discrimination practices on that city’s public transit buses. And the Indian boycott of British goods in the first half of the 20th century was a factor in India’s quest for independence.
Those boycotts worked, but the most recent was more than 60 years ago. Is there a more recent example where a boycott resulted in noticeable, lasting change?
Still, boycotts are often touted as an effective form of protest.
A few months ago, some suggested boycotting the National Football League as a way to show displeasure with players who would not stand for the American national anthem.
There have been calls to avoid an international chain of coffee shops because the owners are in support of same-sex marriages. And there has been a call to stop patronizing an American fast food chain because the owners were opposed to same-sex marriages.
A multinational food and beverage company has been targeted because of its environmental record as well as its record on human rights.
Russian vodka and Russian caviar came under fire before the 2014 Winter Olympics as a way to show disgust with Russia’s human rights policies.
Closer to home, I’ve heard calls to stop patronizing specific local businesses to punish the owners for views on various issues.
Today’s boycotts tend to be short-lived, lasting perhaps a week or two. It’s possible that by the time this column appears in print, the boycott of B.C. will have fizzled into oblivion.
Why don’t today’s boycotts gain more traction?
Part of the reason is that there are calls for moral outrage on a daily basis, with boycotts suggested every few weeks. When such action becomes commonplace, it loses its effectiveness.
More importantly, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Indian boycott of British goods addressed significant social injustices.
And in both these cases, the participants were willing to make sacrifices over the long term in order to realize a goal.
India’s quest for independence took years, not days or weeks.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted almost 13 months and during that time, most African-Americans in that city walked long distances to and from work every day. This wasn’t a minor inconvenience; it was a significant hardship.
An Albertan passing on B.C. wines, a coffee drinker switching shops or a fast food customer choosing a different food outlet doesn’t involve the same level of sacrifice.
I can support people taking a stand for something that matters to them, whether I agree or disagree with the cause.
However, if the goal is to bring about change, I wonder if a call for a boycott is the best way to achieve this goal.
John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.