Holiday closure law should be scrapped

It’s one of the most convoluted and unnecessarily complex laws on the books.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/07/2019 (1421 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s one of the most convoluted and unnecessarily complex laws on the books.

Manitoba’s Retail Businesses Holiday Closing Act – a rat’s nest of arbitrary rules and exemptions that dictates which retail outlets can open Sundays and holidays and which cannot – is in the spotlight again.

Premier Brian Pallister signalled last week he favours loosening some of the restrictions that govern holiday shopping, or at least giving municipalities greater authority over them (like they have now for Sunday shopping and some general holidays).

Governments have been wrestling with this thorny issue for decades. The retail industry has for years demanded government allow them to set their own operating hours on Sundays and holidays. And the public has increasingly come to the realization that, in a modern economy, stores should be allowed to serve their customers as they see fit.

Most governments have been slow to respond to those changing societal norms. They’ve lifted some restrictions. But they still cling to the outdated notion that the state should dictate when shopping and running a store is morally acceptable.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Bottle locks are seen at the St. James Superstore Liquor Mart in Winnipeg.

The result is a legislative hodgepodge that contains so many loopholes and exemptions, it makes a mockery of the stated reasoning behind the act; to ensure workers get a day off Sundays and holidays to spend time with family and friends.

If that were truly the intention, then all retail outlets should be banned from opening on holidays, period. Restaurants should remain shuttered to ensure cooks and servers are guaranteed certain days of rest, as should convenience stores, gas stations and laundromats.

But that’s not how the retail holiday ban works. It puts the holiday “rights” of some workers ahead of others. And it doesn’t treat all general holidays the same.

It’s morally acceptable, for example, for staff to sell bananas on a holiday at a drug store that also operates as a full-service grocery outlet. But it’s illegal for staff to sell bananas at a regular grocery store on most holidays. The rights of grocery store staff are, apparently, more important than those of drug store workers.

Store owners can offer fresh fruit and vegetables for sale any time they wish, if that’s all they sell. But if they trade in a wider range of grocery items, they have to shut on most holidays, or face a hefty fine. If a store operates with four staff or less, those workers are deprived of the holiday rights others enjoy. So, too, are staff who work at coin-operated retail outlets, garden supply stores and amusement centres.

You can buy booze and pot on holidays, but not blinds and lamp shades.

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press

The list of exemptions is long. And the contradictions in the act have become so obvious, and ludicrous, there really isn’t much point to the legislation any more.

Besides, what business does the state have dictating to private companies when they can operate? If a retail outlet wants to open and provide workers with paid hours, they should be free to do so. No one is forcing them to operate on Sundays or holidays. They can remain closed if they want. And those opposed to holiday shopping can refrain from doing so, if that’s what they choose.

Pallister’s proposal of allowing municipalities to further regulate holiday shopping isn’t a bad compromise. It would be an expansion of the existing Sunday shopping rules, where municipalities can pass bylaws allowing stores to open between 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays, as well as on some general holidays (Louis Riel Day, Victoria Day, and Thanksgiving Day). Under the proposed changes, the Sunday shopping rule would apply to all general holidays, not just the three now on the books.

It’s a politically palatable idea. And it would likely sell well in the upcoming provincial election.

But it really is a half measure.

The contradictions in the act have become so obvious, and ludicrous, there really isn’t much point to the legislation any more.

Pallister is right that the current legislation is convoluted and unfair to many retail outlets, including grocery stores. That’s been highlighted in recent weeks after a push-back from the owners of Food Fare stores who are challenging the current law.

But if Pallister’s proposed amendment to the act is to simply apply the Sunday shopping rule to all holidays, Manitobans would still be left with a legislative patchwork that treats some retail outlets differently than others.

The easiest and most desirable thing to do would be to scrap the act entirely (while maintaining workers’ rights to refuse work on Sundays). There really is no compelling reason to keep this law on the books.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.


Updated on Tuesday, July 9, 2019 8:49 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

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