The longer I live in Ontario, the less I find Sunday shopping odd — in fact, I have come to plan my time with it in mind and taken for granted. As a teenager working in tourism, I used to love registering the shock of silly mainlanders who couldn’t fathom not being able to buy stuff on Sundays (esp. booze).

In Prince Edward Island, it still only exists on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas (and for certain small tourist or 7/11-style shops). A philosophy prof from my university submitted this reframing of the debate.

Last updated at 12:21 PM on 12/12/08

Sunday shopping: how we got where we are

Although it seems quaint to many observers, P.E.I.’s debate over Sunday shopping is deeply symbolic.

The issue of Sunday shopping was first framed as an issue about individual liberties — those of store owners and eager consumers, versus those of Sunday-observing Christians.

But by the 1990s, this framing became outdated. Enlightened by pluralism, people in the religious mainstream began to acknowledge that the two most popular shopping days of the week — Friday and Saturday — fall on the primary congregational days for Muslims and Jews respectively. It seemed time for Christians to step down from their hegemony, and let others shop on Sunday if they wish.

This late 20th century re-framing of the debate was congenial to large retail corporations, who stood to profit from the erosion of the longstanding Maritime tradition of closing up shop on Sundays. But once again, it was a framing not adequate to the complexity of the issue.

For one thing, treating Sunday as a holiday is not just a religious tradition. It is more broadly a cultural tradition, an observance of time out from the rush of everyday life for many Maritime communities. The depth and power of this tradition is plainly evident to people from ‘away’. Nothing in the tourism literature prepares newcomers for the phenomenon of seeing downtown streets empty out, mall parking lots drain, and people everywhere retreat to the resuscitating world of home, family gatherings, or hanging out with friends.

Sunday holidays enhance mental health and social cohesion in a community. The economic
significance of these benefits is all the greater when one considers the role that ‘a more relaxed pace of life’ plays in the tourism literature of many regions in Atlantic Canada — regions whose uniqueness recedes with every big box store that moves in.

An even more important complexity is that ‘consumers’ and the corporate agents who want their Sunday dollars are not the only people impacted by Sunday shopping. People much more impacted are the employees who will have to work on Sundays whether they want to or not. This may not be a problem for some employees, but for those who value their family time or who need a day off each week, Sunday shopping can mean having to choose between giving up this valued time, or courting tension with their employers — in some cases, losing shift privileges, or even losing their jobs.

Framing the discussion around consumer/store-owner choice rather than around individual liberty for workers is a reflection of the power dynamics that underlie and prefigure this debate. People who don’t have to worry about being called in to work on Sundays might not notice that workers’ rights are being ignored in the rhetoric of consumer choice.

Corporations wanting to open their stores on Sundays are well served by this tunnel vision. But social justice is not. How well can any workers’ rights legislation protect an employee against the discrimination that can result when she refuses her boss’s demands to be ‘a good team player’ and help out on Sundays?

Further, to construe ‘individual liberty’ as being primarily about ‘consumer choice’ is to misconceive the fundamental role of individuals in a society. It is not to consume or to own stores. It is to build a good life in community with others. There are many different ways to define ‘a good life’, but no democratically acceptable definition can involve ignoring the rights of workers to be equal voyagers on this quest for a good life, with equal rights to some common time away from work.

The recent morphing of the terms of the Sunday shopping debate into ‘giving all stores a level playing field’ has proven even more congenial to large retail corporations. It was the primary theme behind the 2006 overturning of Nova Scotia’s Sunday shopping restrictions.

Thanks to weaknesses in the square-footage approach that Nova Scotia’s Conservative government took, the rights of large supermarket chains to compete ‘on a level playing field’ with large drugstore chains trumped all competing arguments. How major corporations could claim to be on ‘a level playing field’ when small locally owned businesses are among their competitors is a question no one answered. And once major retailers are able to open up shop on Sundays, small businesses are compelled to open too, if they want to hold onto what little market share they have left.

How did things get this way? How did large corporations come to matter so much more than the health of local communities? How did people become complacent about keeping retail workers out of the equation of citizen equality? How did the discourse of western societies come to represent individuals as consumers foremost, and as citizens only on election days?
The answers to these questions would involve tracing out the power of commercial forces from ancient times to the present — our strange present, when nations can no longer set the terms of their own environmental, economic and health policies without deferring to trade agreements motivated by transnational corporations and enforced by international bureaucrats with no accountability to democratically elected governments.

It is no surprise that New Brunswick’s 2005 decision to ‘let municipalities decide’ led to the prevalence of Sunday shopping there. What town council won’t give in when faced with the threat of major retailers to locate their new stores elsewhere if they don’t get their way?

Make no mistake about it. There is a battle of giants going on in our time, becoming only more intense as Wal-Mart enters the field of grocery superstores in Canada. All of them are competing to become The One — our one and only source for food, clothing, toilet paper, drugs, small appliances, and on and on. Unless we engage in civic action to preserve local economies, we will become their helpless dependants, relying on their suppliers and their underpaid workers in countries overseas to feed us. To say no to Sunday shopping isn’t going to save our communities from the fallout of globalized capitalism. But it is to exercise the kind of community intelligence and local control that can.

This was not likely the motivation of the Ghiz government in rejecting year-round Sunday shopping. Premier Ghiz sent clear signals that his concern was simply to occupy a compromise position, a balance between those who want Sunday shopping and those who do not. But he acknowledged also that he might reconsider the decision if it is challenged by large retail corporations, as happened in Nova Scotia. And that refrain too is deeply symbolic: the big box stores made me do it.

Pamela Courtenay-Hall is associate professor in the philosophy department and environmental studies program at the University of Prince Edward Island.