Boycotts are getting a lot of attention these days. What is that all about?

I have been thinking a lot about boycotts this year because they seem to me to have taken on a new dimension here in 2023. And as we say goodbye to another Pride month, the efforts at boycotts based on conservative anger at “woke” corporate identification has taken up a lot of space in the media of late.

If someone had asked you about boycotts this time last year, you would have probably thought of the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, the anti-Apartheid campaign throughout the second half of the last century, or maybe even the Montgomery Bus Boycott from the 1950s. Now the news is filled with stories calling for the boycott of various American companies because of their support for the LGBTQ community and Pride.

Boycotts have a long history in various communities’ efforts to bring about social change through economic pressure. And as you will no doubt agree, some of those campaigns gained a great deal of attention – some even brought about social change. Others never caught on, died away, and were forgotten.

What is a boycott?

According to Wikipedia:

A boycott is an act of nonviolent, voluntary abstention from a product, person, organization, or country as an expression of protest. It is usually for moral, social, political, or environmental reasons. The purpose of a boycott is to inflict some economic loss on the target, or to indicate a moral outrage, to try to compel the target to alter an objectionable behavior.

When people and groups see issues that bother or appall them, they will often initiate a boycott campaign to shame or force a change they believe to be positive. We have heard about many of these campaigns. You may have even supported some – and ignored others.

But first, let’s look at the use of economic pressure to push for political or social change. Because, quite honestly, this history is quite fascinating.  

What is the history of boycotts? 

There is a long history of organized efforts to use economic pressure to bring about political or social change. Most of them would be considered “progressive,” seeking to bring greater equality and justice to a wider segment of the population. 

And as I write this, I realize that this clearly marks me as someone who supports efforts to bring about these changes. I proudly consider myself a member of the “woke mob”.  

Abolition and the free-produce movement

One of the earliest boycotts I could find was known as the free-produce movement. Its most famous element was the Sugar Boycott which started in 1781.

This campaign began in the late 18th century as a response to the lack of progress toward abolishing slavery in Great Britain, the British Empire and the recently liberated United States. In Britain, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) began efforts to abolish the slave trade in both Great Britain and the British Empire. 

The Society for the Abolition of Slavery was formed in 1887, and the Abolition Bill was introduced into the British Parliament two years later.  When that bill had still not been passed two years later, a pamphlet was printed calling for a boycott of sugar produced by slave labour. Consumers were encouraged to avoid sugar coming from slave colonies in the West Indies and instead to purchase sugar from producers in the East Indies that used paid workers. I won’t try to suggest that the wages paid were all that fair, but…

This pamphlet became “the most popular pamphlet of the century.” And over time, the campaign became connected to more than just sugar. Stores that sold only “free-produce” popped up on both sides of the Atlantic. And just to make clear, free-produce was defined as anything produced without the use of slave labour.  

The Abolition movement had taken root in the United States as well, again led by more radical elements within the Quakers. Elias Hicks, whose farmstead on Long Island is being preserved as a historical monument, wrote a booklet called Observations on the Slavery of Africans and Their Descendents that advocated the same free produce movement as his British compatriots. 

The Captain Boycott Boycott (1880)

Ironically the term boycott was not coined for almost one hundred years after the British sugar boycott I have already described. I guess that just means it was called something else at the time.

Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was a land agent for a titled English landowner in Ireland. In 1880, the Irish National Land League called for Boycott’s workers to withdraw their labour and for local merchants to refuse to serve him. The campaign called the Three Fs (fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale) drove Boycott from Ireland and gave us the term we use to this day to describe efforts to use economic pressure to bring about political change.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

One of the most famous boycott campaigns in history was the Montgomery Bus Boycott which started in December 1955 and lasted until the following December. The bus boycott is remembered for a number of reasons. 

One, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on December 1, 1955, she was already sitting at the front of the “coloured-only” section of the bus. Rosa’s crime was to refuse to stand up for a white passenger when instructed by the bus driver. At that point, she was arrested and fined a total of $10. From there, the rest, as they say, was history. Within a few days, African-American bus patrons boycotted the bus system and demanded that all passengers be treated the same.

Two, the campaign created to coordinate the boycott of the Montgomery bus system elected a 26-year-old minister named Martin Luther King Jr to lead their efforts. The Montgomery Bus Boycott became the launching point for King’s campaign to use civil disobedience to campaign for civil rights across the United States. And his efforts only ended with his assassination twelve years later at the Lorraine Motel in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 4, 1968.   

Three, that campaign led to the formation of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which played a fundamental role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Its most famous moment was probably King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in Washington in 1963. This led to his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.

While other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, like John Lewis and Jesse Jackson, went on to play a significant role in American politics, the American Civil Rights Movement never fully recovered from King’s assassination.

Unfortunately, they won’t be able to read about any of this in many American schools as it would apparently promote Critical Race Theory – the idea that race has played a part in American history and politics. For instance, two short children’s books titled I Am Rosa Parks and I Am Maritn Luther King, both by Brad Meltzer, were removed from some school libraries in the United States. And one solution for discussing Rosa Parks in Florida schools was to remove any reference to her race while discussing her place in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and in American history.   

Anti-Apartheid Movement

The campaign that led to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the election of the first truly universally elected government in South Africa was another example of a long-standing boycott campaign.

The Boycott Movement began in Great Britain in 1959. And as Wikipedia tells us, its purpose was summarised this way: “We are not asking you, the British people, for anything special. We are just asking you to withdraw your support from apartheid by not buying South African goods.”

Just What Was Apartheid Anyway?

As some of us will remember, Apartheid was a system of institutional racial segregation that existed in South Africa officially from 1948 until the early 1990s. Apartheid permeated all levels of South African society and segregated political, social and economic elements based on race and color. 

And it wasn’t just about Whites and Blacks. The multi-tiered system placed Whites at the top, Coloreds and Indians on the middle tier and then Blacks on the bottom. This is most significant because Mathma Gandhi spent time in South Africa as a young lawyer before returning to his home country of India to lead the successful campaign for independence in 1947.

Canada’s Role in Some of These International Campaigns

On the surface, these seem like events outside our borders here in Canada, But actually, there are very Canadian stories in both of these boycott campaigns that I think we can be proud of. The three stories that I will try to lay out here are:

  • Lord Simcoe pushed Upper Canada to become a leader in the early days of the Abolition campaign
  • In the leadup to the American Civil War, Canada became the ultimate destination of those escaping the American South along the Underground Railway
  • Canadian Prime Ministers like John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney played prominent roles in the anti-Apartheid campaign, especially within the context of the Commonwealth

Lord Simcoe Spearheads Abolitionist Efforts in Upper Canada

The upcoming August holiday in Ontario is named after Lord Simcoe, who was lieutenant governor of Upper Canada from 1791 to 1796. To put this in perspective, the American Revolutionary War ended the year he arrived.

Simcoe’s primary role within the Abolitionist movement was his success in overseeing passage of the Act Against Slavery in 1793. Well before anyone else in the British Empire would do anything about slavery and the slave trade.

Canada as the Ultimate Destination of the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a system of safe houses run by abolitionists and sympathizers and used by slaves escaping from the slave states of the American South. One major destination for the escaped slaves was Canada, generally referred to as the Promised Land. 


Even by 1850, over ten years before the outbreak of the American Civil War, an estimated 100,000 people made use of it. 30,00 to 40,000 of them ended up in Canada. The vast majority of them finished up in Ontario. There are actually a number of historic sites across southwest Ontario portraying Canada’s role in the campaign. 

Canada Was an Anti-Apartheid Champion

As I began to research the history of the Anti-Apartheid movement, especially within the Commonwealth, I was surprised to discover that Canada “was the only member of the old white Commonwealth to oppose South Africa’s application” (Wikipedia again)  And to place this in context, white Commonwealth was a term, no longer used, to refer to countries in the Commonwealth largely composed of citizens of European descent – like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. 

John Diefenbaker stood alone. But he was not the only Canadian Prime Minister to do so. Later on, in the closing days of Apartheid, Brian Mulroney also stood proud with those seeking peaceful regime change. In fact, the government of South Africa recognized Mulroney’s efforts with an Order of the Companions of O. R. Tambo in Gold for 

“His exceptional contribution to the liberation movement of South Africa, his steadfast support for the release of Nelson Mandela and imposing sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime led to a free, democratic, non-sexist and non-racial South Africa.”

A record to be proud of.

Many other examples, but…

There are numerous other examples of boycotts used to sway public opinion and change public policy, but I need to move on. Issues like Women’s Suffrage, the campaign for same-sex marriage, and ongoing efforts to support Palestinian rights in the state of Israel are just three examples. Perhaps in another posting.

The Rise of Anti-LGBTQ+ Boycotts in the United States in 2023   

I began this post by referring to the rise of boycotts intended to protest various American corporations’ support for the LGBTQ+ community and other elements of what has now been tagged as “woke”. The effort that seems to have gained the most public attention is the campaign against Bub Light for its connection with trans influencer Dylan Mulvany. 

As Emily Stewart recently wrote in a story for VOX: “ Bud Light sent a handful of beers to a trans influencer, and all hell broke loose.” The sales of Bud have been pummeled as conservatives have condemned the gesture, and others have condemned their quick attack and retraction. 

Dylan Mulvaney recently posted a video pointing out that after Bud Light brought her on board as a spokesperson, they abandoned her. The video is heartfelt and heartbreaking. Thank you, Dylan.

But this isn’t the only effort by conservative activists. 

Now, let me stop here for a moment and point out that I have difficulty referring to this as a conservative effort. As I just pointed out in the previous section, conservatives have identified with efforts at positive social change. John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney were both Progressive Conservative Prime Ministers here in Canada – and their efforts on abolishing Apartheid are probably the only elements of their legacy that I can applaud.

And the campaign to protest corporate support for Pride has gained a fair bit of attention. Target has been “targetted” (pun noted, but not originally intended). 

So has Chick-fil-A. To me, this is one of the strangest. For years, Chick-fil-A has been a target of condemnation for donating to anti-LGBTQ organizations. Now they are being criticized for hiring a VP of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. This is a practice at an untold number of companies all over the US.

Where Is This All Going?

The polls that I have seen suggest that more and more Americans indicate their support for the rights of individuals identifying as being Queer in one way or another and a woman’s right to choose. But this is not where public dialogue is heading.

This has been one of the most invigorating yet painful posts I have ever written. I have spent my whole life convinced that open dialogue in a democratic society eventually leads to progressive change. But that is not what I am seeing as I look through my newsfeed these days. 

We are confronted by real issues like environmental degradation through climate change and war in Europe unlike anything seen in almost eighty years.  Yet here we are debating subjects I consider to be so simple and fundamental. People should be able to live their lives in peace, making the choices they have decided are best for them and for them alone. But apparently, that is simply not to be.