Column for July 2, 2006

MacDonald makes bad law worse

To tell the truth, and I sometimes do, I could care less whether I am allowed to shop ’til I drop on Sundays. I have no vested, or even unvested, interest in the outcome of this tiresome debate.

I don’t, thank God, work in the retail business. If there is indeed a God I should be thanking, however, He (or should that be She, or It?) still hasn’t convinced me it is my sacred duty to oppose shopping, dancing, card-playing, movie-going, or Internet surfing on the Christian Sabbath (or, for that matter, on the Jewish, Muslim or anyone’s else’s preferred day of rest).

If the ban on Sunday shopping was lifted totally tomorrow, I would probably go to the malls about as often as I do now. Which is to say as little as possible, especially before Christmas, during holidays, or at any other time when there are likely to be crowds present. Especially Sundays.

In the last provincial plebiscite on the issue in 2004, I was among the 45 per cent of Nova Scotians who voted for Sunday shopping, but I was not heartbroken when my side lost.

All of that said, I find our government’s latest response to this issue puzzling, contradictory and ludicrous. Or, to give our premier the benefit of the doubt, perhaps Rodney MacDonald is just simply incredibly inept.

The current laws on Sunday shopping are so badly conceived you could drive an 18-wheeler full of exotic fruits and vegetables through them and still be legal. Just ask Pete Luckett. More on Pete later.

Although the law has its roots in Christian dogma (once known as the Lord’s Day Act, it now carries the more boringly God-neutral title of the Retail Business Uniform Closing Day Act),there are lots of interest groups — from workers’ rights advocates to family values’ politicians to convenience store owners and tourist operators — who have done their best to bend the law to their own self-interested purposes.

Which means the law is so full of loopholes and exemptions as to be meaningless. While you cannot wander a mall or shop in a supermarket on a Sunday, you can browse the grocery shelves at your neighbourhood mega-pharmacy, pick up a twofer at the cold beer store, buy a bestseller at a big-box Chapters, play the slots at the casino, even paw the fruits and vegetables at Pete’s Frootique.

Pete, as you may recall, challenged the law that kept larger stores closed on Sundays by ingeniously subdividing his operation into a bunch of legally separate but conveniently all under one roof and otherwise indistinguishable specialty shops. The province took him to court and lost.

Finally, just before last month’s provincial election, the province’s two largest grocery chains decided they had no choice but to follow Pete, effectively making even more of a mockery of the law.

In response, Rodney MacDonald’s government brought down the hammer. Sort of. Late last week, it introduced new regulations to amend the Closing Day Act.

It is worth noting that almost a full page of the three pages of regulations are taken up with “exemptions” to the rules, which include confectionary storess, Laundromats, even… wait for it… “a prefabricated or modular home sales office.” Huh?

But the key clause is the one that prohibits a grocery store whose retail sales space is ever more than 4,000 square feet from opening on Sundays. Take that, malls and supermarkets.

What about Pete’s Frootique? Good question. The last sentence in the new regulations reads: “Subsection (2) does not apply to a store if that store was regularly open to the public on Sunday before June 1, 2006.”

Which is to say Pete’s Frootique. Why the exception for Pete’s? Better question. I confess I don’t know — could it be because Pete has already won his lawsuit, and the government thinks Sobeys and Superstores should run up their own legal bills? — but MacDonald’s selective shutdown has not only managed to make me feel some unexpected sympathy for the big supermarket chains but also finally made me care about the Sunday shopping debate.

Having made an already poorly drafted and unfair law even more discriminatory, it’s time to do the right thing and ditch the law altogether.

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