December 10, 2019

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Holiday-closing law is outdated, unfair

Editorial

On Monday, a local grocery store owner was informed by a provincial inspector that he was in contravention of the law by having his store open on Labour Day, and was ordered to shut his doors. When he refused, the inspector stated the intention to report the infraction to police.

The storekeeper’s response: "Go right ahead." Whether or not the call was placed to the local constabulary is unclear; what is certain is that police never arrived, and the store remained open.

Munther Zeid was ordered to close his Food Fare location at 2285 Portage Ave. Monday by a provincial inspector who threatened to call the police on him. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Munther Zeid was ordered to close his Food Fare location at 2285 Portage Ave. Monday by a provincial inspector who threatened to call the police on him. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

This, by any reasonable standard one might apply in 2018, is a just outcome. In the current context of commercial enterprise and consumer expectation, the Manitoba legislation requiring store closure on certain holidays — the Retail Businesses Holiday Closing Act — is outdated, unfair and impractical.

The law, which is unique in its archaic governance of retail business on statutory holidays, prevents certain Manitoba businesses — most notably, those in specific sectors that ordinarily operate with more than four employees — from being open on general holidays, including New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Canada Day, Labour Day and Christmas Day.

There are, however, exceptions: businesses operating with four or fewer employees can open for business, as can restaurants, pharmacies, laundromats, boat and motor-vehicle rental, repair and service shops, businesses with educational or amusement focuses, tourism and recreational facilities and retailers selling flowers, garden supplies and accessories and fresh fruit and vegetables.

Casinos and some private wine stores were also open on Labour Day.

Munther Zeid, whose family owns five modestly sized, neighbourhood-based Food Fare outlets in Winnipeg, was the recipient of the aforementioned inspector’s visit and warning. His stores sell groceries and other assorted items, including some pharmaceuticals, but are categorized among the stores expected to remain closed on general holidays.

By contrast, Shoppers Drug Mart, which these days features extensively stocked aisles of groceries, along with cosmetics, books, greeting cards, stationery and various seasonal items, are defined as pharmacies and are therefore exempt from the holiday-closing requirement.

Simply put, that makes no sense. In an age when retail survival often requires category crossover in order to attract general shopping traffic, the restrictions set out in Manitoba’s out-of-step legislation unfairly target a bizarrely defined sub-category of businesses, most of which are offering very similar fare to that available at other enterprises that are legally open on holidays.

Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck said Tuesday that workers have fought for years for the right to have days off to spend time with their families, so the law should be respected. It’s a lofty, collective-bargaining-inclined sentiment, but one can’t help wondering which workers Mr. Rebeck is referencing. Hospital employees? At work on holidays. Pharmacy staff? On the job. Casino dealers? Working. Restaurant wait staff? At your service. Gas-station attendants? Jumping to the pump. Convenience-store clerks? Behind the counter, in numbers of four or less.

The Retail Businesses Holiday Closing Act is no longer relevant to the way Canadians live, which is probably why the Retail Council of Canada points out that no other western Canadian province restricts shopping on holidays or Sundays the way Manitoba does.

The province should, at its leisure, reconsider the act and amend it to reflect the needs of Manitobans in 2018. If it turns out they still want businesses to close on holidays, a more fairly applicable standard must be created.

In the meantime, the outdated law should be enforced the way it was on Monday — which is not at all.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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