Jack Knox: If they have to close the shop anyway, why not Sunday?

It wasn’t until 1980 when then-Prime Minister Bill Bennett relaxed the Sunday ban on shopping.

My great idea for solving the labor shortage problem: No more shopping on Sundays.

you are welcome. I will humbly accept your flattery.

We take into account what kind of workplaces are open and when. Some of them — government operations, schools, banks, all those offices that fill commercial buildings from the second floor above — close every weekend, as dark and lifeless as Oak Bay then Risk. By contrast, retail stores on the ground floor are mostly open seven days a week.

We forget that it wasn’t always the case. Sundays and holidays were prohibited in British Columbia by law.

It wasn’t until 1980 when then-Prime Minister Bill Bennett relaxed the ban by saying that Sunday shopping would be allowed in municipalities as residents voted to approve it.

Of course, here in Dysfunction-by-the-Sea, where our myriad municipalities couldn’t coordinate a three-car funeral without driving in four directions and losing stamina, this resulted in a patchwork of regulations. While residents of Esquimalt, Sidney, and the then-unincorporated communities of the West Shore agreed to shop on Sundays in 1980, Saanich residents rejected it. Victoria and Oak Bay didn’t vote at all until 1981—that same year Saanich grocers were fined for opening on Sundays while their rivals in Esquimalt, Colwood and Sidney were allowed to continue operating.

Eventually, the entire area agreed to shop on Sundays, although it was the food stores and the tourist district on Government Street that took advantage of this option. It wasn’t until the pre-Christmas season of 1984 that Woodward’s department store pioneered that more retailers jumped in.

This led to a warning that the phenomenon would spread, like COVID. “Nobody wants to shop on Sundays all year round, but if one person does it, others will,” said the head of the Downtown Victoria Association in early 1985. You lose less by opening on Sunday than by staying closed.”

Being open for longer may sound good for big companies that have looked at their stores the same way airlines look at passenger planes – they only make money when they’re in the air – but mom-and-pop stores have only found a choice between A) paying more than employees and (b) not have a day off. It’s not as though shopping on a Sunday would give customers more money to spend.

It wasn’t just a small business that sparked concern. So did the people who were so worried about losing our collective downtime, that we lose out on Sundays as a time when we all take a collective breath. Note that in 1967, Prime Minister W.A.C. Bennett, Bill’s father, denounced the marketing of Sundays as an example of a “cocktail hippie community” that eroded family life in North America.

Perhaps that’s why, by 1988, barely a third of British Columbia’s municipalities had opened on Sundays – but then a court decision declared the entire Sunday and holiday closure law unconstitutional anyway. Forget voter approval, business can open when they want. British Columbia’s attorney general, Bud Smith, called the ruling “a major victory for large corporate retail interests.”

Therefore, Sunday shopping has become the norm. Holiday slots took longer to gain admission, although they eventually did, too. (“Christ is risen but prices are down,” she grumbled when stores opened on Easter Sunday in 1998.)

Round the clock shopping hasn’t spread, at least not in Victoria. The Wal-Mart in the Old Town and Country Mall tried a 24-hour opening during the run-up to Christmas 2006, and two more stores followed in later years, but they soon abandoned the idea. Turns out 24-hour retail is a tough sell in 9-5 towns; It’s not like we have 1,200 mill workers leaving in the middle of the night.

Besides, the objections to the 24-hour opening are the same as they were to Sunday shopping a generation earlier: It creates a community without a switch off.

Which brings us to today, where workplaces are forced to downsize not because of a lack of business, but because of a shortage of employees. Guess who will be open and when it feels like playing roulette.

Well, if they’re going to cut back on expenses anyway, why not be consistent and shut down Sunday and make it a day off again?

Here’s why: Because for some people, Sunday is the only day they can shop. And because competition, online commerce, is 24/7. And because the lines between home and work, at work or outside, have become so blurred that it is hard to recognize them. Raise your hand if you answer work texts at the beach, or expect your child’s teacher to reply to an email at night. For many, the shutdown switch is frozen in the open position.

We are a long way from September 1972 when Victoria, with the support of most of the city’s barbershops, won a court challenge to a regulation requiring such establishments to close not only on Sundays but Wednesdays (or another day of their choosing). Barbers guarantee two days off every week.


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