The Tories’ election pledge to eliminate provincial restrictions on Sunday and holiday shopping is a good first step. But it is a half-measure, since municipalities would still be able to regulate retail hours on those days.
Tory Leader Brian Pallister announced Friday that a re-elected Progressive Conservative government would repeal the Retail Holiday Businesses Closing Act. It’s one of the most convoluted and outdated provincial laws on the books. The act attempts to balance the rights of store owners to run their businesses as they fit with the notion that workers deserve Sundays and holidays off to spend time with friends and family. But it fails spectacularly in its attempt to achieve either of those goals.
There is no rhyme or reason to the legislation. It has been changed and "modernized" so many times over the past few decades to satisfy whatever interest group has made the most noise, it’s become ridiculously unworkable, unfair and utterly out of touch with today’s economy.
It contains so many exemptions and loopholes, its practical application has become a joke. A store can sell groceries on a holiday if its primary business is selling prescription drugs. But a store that sells only groceries cannot. Retail outlets can sell gardening and landscaping products, but not power tools or lumber. They can sell pot and booze, but not a can of soup or a loaf of bread (unless they normally operate with four staff or less).
The list of exemptions is long, arbitrary and confusing. Store owners have to cross-reference various sections of the act to figure out when, or if, they can open. It’s not even clear when they can open one section of their store while leaving another section closed. (A store that sells home-renovation goods, for example, may have to keep that area closed on a holiday, but can sell grass seeds and soil in their nursery section).
It’s a rat’s nest. And it serves no purpose other than to cause confusion in the industry and to unnecessarily limit the freedoms of retail operators.
It also does virtually nothing to "protect" workers from having to work on Sundays or holidays. Due to the seemingly endless exemptions in the act, many retail staff end up working those days anyway. It creates two classes of workers: those important enough to have those days off, and those not worthy of the act’s protection.
Besides, many retail staff — including students and part-time workers — want the flexibility to pick up hours on those days, especially when they’re paid a premium hourly rate. Preventing stores from opening on certain days, or during prescribed hours, reduces employment opportunities.
Repealing the act entirely — instead of tying to "fix" it, as previous governments have attempted to — is the right move. There is no point keeping the act, or trying to write some new version of it.
Unfortunately, the Tories’ election promise would still allow municipalities to regulate shopping on Sundays and holidays. Party officials say they believe there is enough flexibility in the province’s Municipal Act to allow local governments to establish their own holiday and Sunday shopping restrictions, should they choose to do so. However, if new enabling legislation is required by the province to allow for that, the Tories say they would introduce such a bill.
It’s a compromise. Not everyone supports the elimination of Sunday and holiday shopping restrictions. So the Tories have found a middle ground. They can argue if local communities still favour those controls, they can lobby their municipal representatives to pass bylaws to suit their community. It’s a salable position.
The Tories’ election pledge also doesn’t apply to shopping restrictions on Remembrance Day. That’s governed under a separate piece of legislation. Unlike Sunday and holiday shopping laws, The Remembrance Day Act has a well-defined and widely accepted objective: to honour Canada’s veterans. Retail businesses would still have to remain closed between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Remembrance Day under the Tories’ proposal.
There isn’t much controversy in this election pledge. Sunday and holiday shopping restrictions may have made sense in the past. But they haven’t for a long time. This one is long overdue.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.
Updated on Friday, August 23, 2019 at 7:37 PM CDT: Updates headline