John Mellencamp’s song Small Town is a catchy reminder of the way the world looks from the perspective of the little communities that dot the United States and Canada, too. It is worth humming under your breath as you read the news that residents of the border town of Bellingham, Washington are calling for “American-only” shopping hours at the local Costco, which is routinely crowded with Canadian cross border shoppers.
Bellingham is a college town with nearly 81,000 people, nestled between the Puget Sound and Mount Baker. It is the largest town for miles around, but still a small community.
Small U.S. towns dot the border with Canada, including Grand Forks, North Dakota, Sault Ste Marie and Port Huron in Michigan, Niagara Falls and Plattsburgh, New York. Unlike the large border cities of Detroit and Buffalo, in the smaller towns an influx of Canadian shoppers has a noticeable impact.
In the early 1990s, I worked in Port Huron. Unlike residents of my hometown of Detroit, in Port Huron people often joked about Canadian shoppers who came over to visit the Walmart and the new mall in Fort Gratiot to take advantage of bargains (Canada had just introduced the GST, and tax savings were part of the attraction of American retailers).
Cars with Ontario plates clogged roads designed for the small local population, got turned around and made sudden and astonishingly bad driving decisions, and filled parking lots built without anticipation of a surge of additional customers. Locals couldn’t get seats, or couldn’t linger, at their favourite restaurants and hang-outs when the Canadians were in town.
One common complaint heard in Port Huron then and Bellingham today: Canadians who buy new shoes and then abandon their old shoes in parking lots. By wearing their new shoes home, they escape paying duty and GST.
In small towns, everyone knows everyone—and your mother. Reputation is important, and as a result people behave with a restraint and civility toward one another. Local customs and traditions are observed, and enforced with a stern look, gossip and sometimes ostracization.
None of these techniques works on outsiders passing through. And outsiders often annoy locals without being aware that they are giving offense. They don’t notice the looks, and the locals don’t know their mothers.
Around the world, the stereotype of the “ugly American” tourist is built on blundering offenses against local sensibilities. When Mark Twain wrote The Innocents Abroad he poked fun at U.S. travelers and offended locals alike, but highlighted the culture clash that occurs when visitors stride blithely into places they don’t trouble themselves to comprehend.
The problem is an old one and a very human one, even though in Bellingham today the frustration with outsiders is manifesting itself on Facebook. The solution is mutual courtesy and consideration. Americans should be a bit more forgiving, since border towns benefit from the money spent by Canadian visitors at local establishments, and higher sales volumes help retailers to lower prices for everyone.
Canadians should remember that the towns they visit are somebody’s home, take an interest in local festivals and community gatherings, reach out and get to know locals. Neighbours shouldn’t be strangers, nor treat one another that way.
Sooner or later, the exchange rate will shift again, tax policies will be adjusted to eliminate advantages, and cross border shopping will return to more moderate levels. Yet with greater mutual courtesy, the friendships established as a result could last a lifetime.