As a high school student in Hong Kong during the 2019 anti-government protests, I witnessed the demise of its boycott movement first-hand.

I vividly remember seeing empty and damaged store locations for Best Mart 360, which is a public food retail company. For months, it faced an unprecedented boycott campaign from pro-democracy groups due to its CEO’s alleged affiliations with Beijing. 

Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. The subsequent enforcement of Beijing’s National Security Law meant, ironically, that protesters’ calls for a boycott lost widespread public attention within months. Between 2019 and 2023, Best Mart 360’s revenue has only increased year-over-year.

Now, in Canada, pro-Palestine groups have enlarged and strengthened Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movements against companies that have ties with the Israeli state. The movement follows the aftermath of the October 7 attack on Israel waged by Hamas, which set the stage for the bloodiest conflict in the region in recent decades. It led to Israel directly engaging in a military counter-offensive in the Gaza Strip, which has since led to over 26,000 deaths in Gaza, as of January 27. As allegations of war crimes mount against the Israeli Defense Force, pro-Palestine organizations around the world have called for a boycott of businesses that maintain ties with the Israeli state and the Israeli military.

Protest actions against these companies have taken many forms, such as sit-ins, vandalism, and marches. But they all share a common underlying purpose — to discourage the public from consuming these businesses’ goods, putting financial pressure on them to stop supporting the Israeli military. 

Will the boycotting strategy work this time around? The Best Mart 360 boycott failure made me realize that boycotting is effective on one condition — that there is a persistent public spotlight to pressure the targeted groups into obeying the popular discourse. 

Prominent boycotts in the city of Toronto 

Countless BDS activities have been organized across Canada since early October, with companies like Scotiabank, Indigo, Cafe Landwer, and Starbucks finding themselves in the middle of the crisis. During the movement’s height in November, the chaotic protests in the GTA and affiliated arrests dominated the headlines of major news outlets. 

At the Ceremony for the Scotiabank Giller Prize last November, protestors disrupted the event to oppose the bank’s indirect involvement in Israel’s military actions. Holding a sign that writes “Scotiabank funds genocide” and shouting “Scotiabank currently has a $500 million stake in Elbit Systems,” all protestors now face charges of obstructing property and using forged documents. 

The corporate accountability organization Ekō has accused Elbit Systems, an Israeli defence contractor, of manufacturing cluster munitions for its government — a deadly kind of weapon that more than 100 countries, including Canada, have banned. According to the Intercept, an American nonprofit news organization, Scotiabank is estimated to be the largest overseas shareholder with $500 million in stake. 

On another occasion, a pro-Palestinian groups instrumented a sit-in at Scotiabank’s downtown Toronto headquarters to protest its investments in Elbit Systems. The action turned into a clash between police officers and participants. This particular demonstration was part of an international “day of action” of protests and boycotts focusing on political offices, businesses, and workplaces that “fund, invest, and collaborate” with Israel. 

Jewish-founded bookstore Indigo was also a target of the BDS movement in Canada. Established by Heather Reisman, the Bloor-Bay branch of the Canadian bookstore chain was vandalized in November for its CEO’s support for Israel’s military. The protestors, all of whom are now charged with criminal harassment, poured red paint and plastered posters annotated with the words “chief occupation lover” on the store’s window.

According to the Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, Reisman and her husband financed the Israeli army by establishing the HESEG Foundation for Lone Soldiers in 2005. It incentivizes non-Israeli citizens who came to Israel to join the Israeli military to “remain in Israel, acquire an academic education, continue to strive for excellence, and lead the State of Israel to future achievements.” Neither Indigo nor HESEG has stated whether the company’s profits are tied to the Foundation — however, several senior members or veterans of the Israeli army are on the board of directors of the HESEG. 

Impacts on the boycotted companies 

The impact on targeted companies is currently unclear due to a scarcity of information on the change in revenue or sales. 

The drop in Starbucks’ share price in December prompted some excitement from protesters — but it is not clear whether the boycotts are the primary driver of this. 

Scotiabank’s stock price has gradually increased since protesters’ clashes with the police in November, thus demonstrating its business resilience. In light of the protests at its event and property, it has requested one advocacy group, Ekō, to end its campaign demanding Scotiabank’s divestment from Elbit Systems, claiming the campaign spread misinformation that caused “confusion and disturbances.” 

In an email to Ekō, the bank clarified that it was not the biggest shareholder nor the biggest foreign shareholder of Elbit, specifying that Ekō had been counting shares held by individual participants in mutual funds managed by its asset management arm. So far, the movement has only triggered the Canadian lender to work to dispel such allegations, and the bank itself appears to be unaffected by the existing controversy. 

As for Indigo, neither Reisman nor her company responded to the attack on November 10. The windows were cleaned shortly after. Still, when I walked by the Yorkdale branch on Christmas Eve, the store was surprisingly packed with shoppers purchasing ‘last-minute’ gifts, seemingly ignoring the calls for a boycott against Indigo. 

In my opinion, current BDS efforts are not strong enough to alter the public’s preferences and consumption choices; thus, business is unfortunately going on as usual. 

Boycotting works, but give it time 

Previous efforts in the pro-Palestine movement have worked before, though. Ben and Jerry’s stopped selling ice cream in illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land after 10 years of campaigning by The Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, while HSBC divested from Elbit Systems merely a year after the campaigners first made calls to boycott the bank. 

It seems that news outlets have lately reduced their coverage of BDS activities. Student-led initiatives are returning, although perhaps less frequently. The only way to regain public attention on these companies’ pro-Israel stance is to continuously organize high-profile activities in a legal and non-violent manner. As the movement only attracted heightened traction recently, time will show us the tangible results yielded by this new wave of boycotts in Canada in the fight for Palestinian rights.