About Joseph Tohill

Joseph Tohill is a historian, writer, and university educator who holds a PhD in history from York University and a BA and MA in History from the University of Western Ontario. I study twentieth-century American and Canadian history and the history of consumer activism, consumer politics, and public policy from a transnational and comparative perspective, and I am a former recipient of a Canada-US Fulbright Scholarship, which I held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I currently teach Canadian and American history at Ryerson University and York University in Toronto, Canada.

Public talk at Toronto Reference Library

Join me this Thursday 18 May 7:00 – 8:30 p.m. in Beeton Hall at the Toronto Reference Library as part of their “Thought Exchange” series of author talks. I’ll be speaking about my recently published book, Shopping for Change: Consumer Activism and the Possibilities of Purchasing Power (co-edited with Louis Hyman).

I’ll explore how past consumer activism in North America can inform and inspire consumer activism in the age of Trudeau and Trump.

For more information, see here.

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My interview with Open Book about Shopping for Change

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Book cover for the Canadian publication by Between the Lines Books.

This week marks the publication in Canada (very exciting!) of my new book, co-edited with Louis Hyman, Shopping for Change: Consumer Activism and the Possibilities of Purchasing Power. Published by Between the Lines here in Canada, it’s published elsewhere by Cornell University Press, which will have it out in April.

Recently I spoke about the book with Open Book (which celebrates and profiles Ontario’s literary scene, with a special focus on the books and events produced by Ontario’s independent, Canadian-owned publishers) as part of their Lucky Seven interview series. In the interview, I discuss how the Occupy movement inspired the book, about dealing with imposter syndrome, and, of course, the importance of tea in the writing process. The Lucky Seven interview, with Joseph Tohill

Incomes, Not Values, Explains US-Canada Difference in High-End Retail Consumption

With another high-end American department store about to open in Toronto’s Eaton Centre this week, the New York Times today contrasts the retrenchment of department stores in the United States with their expansion in Canada. In addition to the new Nordstrom stores, it notes the expensive renovation of the Hudson’s Bay’s flagship store, located immediately south of the Eaton Centre, and the expansion of Quebec’s La Maison Simons into other parts of Canada.

A little irksome, however, is the resort to tiresome cultural comparisons between Canadians and Americans in order to explain differences between the retail markets of the two countries. The article, for example, cites the greater Canadian frugality to explain why Canada hasn’t had the same explosion of high-end retail shopping that the US has experienced in the past few decades. This assumes that consumers in each country are about equally wealthy. Of course, it was the New York times itself that did much a couple of years ago to hype the idea median incomes in the United States were falling behind those in Canada.

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“Falling behind” is a relative term, as the NYT’s own data demonstrates. The top 50 percent of American earners still do better than their Canadian counterparts.

The US middle class, the Times lamented, was falling behind Canada’s (an idea that did not go uncontested at the time). Whether this was accurate or not, the striking thing is that once you go above the median income, at which point Canada and the United States are relative equal, Americans in every decile (i.e. increment of 10 percent) above earn significantly more than their Canadian counterparts.

Surely the explanation for the supposed frugality of Canadian consumers when it comes to high-end retailers is this: Canada is simply home to fewer super-rich earners (and consumers) than the US. In 2010, for example, the richest 1 percent in Canada took home about 10 percent of the national income; in the US, they “earned” 25 percent of it. To break into the top 1 percent in Canada that year, you had to earn just $201,400; in America, $352,000.

The retrenchment of the high-end retail industry in the United States suggests the American market is oversaturated with stores like Nordstrom, Macey’s, and Saks. My bet is it will eventually happen in Canada, too, and probably more quickly than south of the border. And Canadian frugality will have nothing to do with it.

Kaepernick Jersey-buyers Draw on another American Political Tradition—Consumer Activism

As many commentators have pointed out, in refusing to stand for the American national anthem and “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” NLF back-up quarterback Colin Kaepernick has joined a tradition of black athletes who have used their fame to promote civil rights. But his actions have also provided his fans and supporters with an opportunity to engage in another storied American political tradition—consumer activism.

Consumer activism has deep roots in American history, stretching back to the boycotts of “baubles from Britain” in the lead-up to the American Revolution. Black civil rights activists have long spent (or refused to spend) their dollars in the service of their cause. Consumer activism was central, for example, to many of the key battles of the Civil Rights Era, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the lunch-counter sit-ins. More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement disrupted shopping on Black Friday—the busiest shopping day of the year in the US—to draw attention to police killings of African Americans.

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson, MO, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday consumerism in November 2015. (Photo by The All-Nite Images licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The news that Kaepernick’s jersey is now the top seller in the NFL suggests a spontaneous, grassroots move by consumers to use their “purchasing power for justice” (to paraphrase the slogan of the League of Women’s Shoppers, an influential consumer organization of the 1930s and 1940s). The “buycott” of Kaepernick’s jersey has the support of some celebrities like Susan Sarandon (who recently tweeted that she was waiting for hers to arrive) but the spontaneous nature of the protest is striking. Continue reading

Bizarre Border? You Bet! A Short HIstory of the Canada-US Border

I recently came across this fun little video romp through the intricacies and contradictions in the Canada-US border.

I’ve since linked to it in my online Canada and the United States history course, in the lecture that touches on the founding of the International Boundary Commission. Established not many years after the contentious Alaska Boundary Dispute, the creation of the IBC represented the bureaucratization of border conflicts. For this reason, the IBC might ordinarily be considered a somewhat dry topic. C.P.G Grey’s video, “Bizarre Borders, Part 2: Canada and the United States,” manages to make it seem cool.

The history of the border (especially prior to the creation of the IBC) is quite a bit more colourful than one might think. What follows is a brief history of how the Canada-US border—even the seemingly straight part that runs along the 49th parallel—got to be so contentious and complicated. Continue reading

Why Obama has made so little difference: reflections on Canada-US differences

This is a post I wrote for Active History last year, just before the US presidential election.

It draws on my comparative and transnational historical research and writing on the United States and Canada. I’ve stressed the importance of political-institutional structures in shaping and constraining what it’s possible for political leaders and policymakers to accomplish in each country.

In retrospect, a more descriptive title would probably have garnered more interest in this post. (It doesn’t really get explained until the end.) At the time, though, I liked the militant sound of it.

World War II Propaganda Poster, Office of Price Administration.

Less than two weeks to go in the US presidential election campaign, and the candidates are (surprisingly) running neck and neck. The sense of disappointment in incumbent President Barack Obama is palpable, especially after his sleepy first debate performance turned what should have been a runaway race into a real contest. Of course, the current disappointment is just the latest in a string of disappointments—from the failure to close Guantanamo Bay to the failure to reform social security. Combined, they have turned 2008’s campaign slogans such as “Change We Can Believe In!” into a bitter memory for many audaciously hopeful liberals, lefties, and social activists of all sorts.

Continue reading

Capitalist Theology on the CBC

Read my take on CBC Radio‘s summer 2012 show “The Invisible Hand” on Active History.

I was prompted to write this piece after hearing the show’s homage to price gougers—those who, in the aftermath of crises such 1998’s ice storm in central Canada or 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in the US Gulf Coast, seek to exploit a situation of crisis-induced shortages (not to mention the desperation of others) for personal financial gain. The show’s conclusions seemed so out of line with my own historical research, which suggests there’s value in governments attempting to regulate such activity. (The picture below is a WWII poster produced by the US Office of Price Administration, which oversaw American price control and rationing.)

My commentary on the show was pretty critical. Interestingly, I was contacted by the show’s host, with whom I had a quite pleasant email exchange. In fairness, one of the later episodes of the show featured a committed Keynesian, which did provide a bit of balance, but I think the overall critique is still valid.

By Dr. Joseph Tohill

There’s nothing like a bit of neoconservative propaganda gussied up as a hip, edgy CBC radio program to get your blood boiling on a hot summer’s day. The Invisible Hand, a mid-week staple of Radio One’s summer schedule hosted by

Vancouver broadcaster Matthew Lazin-Ryder, bills itself as “a defiantly non-dismal take on the ‘dismal science’ of economics.” Revelling in its role as cheeky iconoclast, the show seeks to upend the conventional wisdom about greedy price gougers, rapacious capitalists, and exploitative sweatshop owners.

Continue reading