With moves by the Government of Nova Scotia this week, Prince Edward Island will soon be the only province in Canada to have laws preventing wide-open Sunday shopping. Which means, in practice, that while we can shop for Catcher in the Rye and quality Island crafts on Sundays (there are exemptions for bookstores and craft shops, among others), we’re prevented from doing a full-on weekly grocery shop and from purchasing 39-inch plasma screen televisions.
The issue of “Sunday shopping” makes for strange bedfellows. You’re not likely to find me in church on Sunday; indeed I’ve been accused of “outright hositility toward the choice made by the vast majority of Island society who follow a Christian lifestyle and are devout worshippers.”
You would think then, given my irreligious attitudes, I’d be in favour of wide-open Sunday morning Canadian Tire attendance. But I’m not.
I’ve got nothing against shopping. But I tend to think that we’re all growing a little too used to deriving much of our sense of personal well-being from the acquisition of stuff. So when historical precedent, religious or not, hands us a day without shopping, a day when, in theory, we can look elsewhere for our well-being, I’m on board.
Whether it’s going to church, or going to the golf course, or playing with Lego, going for a walk, or reading a book, our current largely commerce-free Sundays here on PEI are a valuable gift that we should treasure.
“But what about the other 32 million Canadians — shouldn’t we strive to stay in step with modern times?” one hears in response. To this I offer the suggestion that it might just be possible that Prince Edward Islanders are smarter than the rest of Canadians, that we recognize that life doesn’t have to revolve around Home Depot, and that it’s okay to take a day off every week.
Or perhaps one hears “this is a Christian thing — we can’t impose Christianity on everyone!” No we can’t. But there’s something special about a shared day off. A sense of quiet, you might say. A collective recognition. That this choice of day happens to extend from Christian practice doesn’t need to imply that we’re all up for Jesus — but it is useful that there are so many Christians who take Sunday so seriously, and that’s a useful fact to leverage for the good of all of us, Christian or not.
“But the cruise ship visitors — they want to be able to buy diamond jewelry on Sundays!” Right, sure. Even if that were true, I think it’s time we draw a line in the sand, a point beyond which we will not go to prostitute ourselves to the tourist economy. Cruise ship visitors in particular add little to the life of our community; they’re hear for a few hours, take a zip around in their air conditioned tour buses, and then they’re gone. If we can fleece them for a few bucks in the process, fine. But should we really reconfigure our lives for them? Aren’t there better, more honourable, less destructive ways to build an economy?
The final wave of pro-wide-open-shopping protest comes from those on the other side of the current Sunday exemptions. Sobeys and the Atlantic Superstore, for example — large grocery store chains — led the fight in Nova Scotia, presumably in part because they felt it unfair that little grocery stores were allowed to open and they weren’t. Bookstores can open, but shoe stores can’t. Nurses and police officers have to work, but programmers don’t. “It’s so unfair!” one hears.
I would hold, however, that our current laws have been rather skillfully crafted to allow for least impact on what’s special about Sunday. It’s one thing to pop over to Brighton Clover Farm to grab a tub of Cool Whip for Sunday dinner, quite another to spend two hours at Sobeys buying groceries. And that small crafts shops, serving the tourist economy, are allowed to open seems a reasonable compromise. Laws are imperfect tools that we use to shape the nature of our society; they don’t have to be black and white, and they should be allowed to reflect the eccentricities of a community. So while it’s impractical to shut down everything on Sundays (remember that, historically, Islanders weren’t even allowed to drive automobiles on Sundays), there’s no reason why the alternative has to see Sunday turn into another Monday.
Prince Edward Island wrapped itself in the promotion tag-line “What if the world had been to Prince Edward Island?” this year. And while the campaign itself was widely derided (and appears to not have actually worked very well), there’s truth in them thar words: what if the world had been to Prince Edward Island? Isn’t it possible that we’re on to something here, that we understand something about how to have a better quality of life, and quality of life where not everything has to come down to dollars and cents?
It is said that Islanders are averse to change. While this actually isn’t true (PEI has changed more than any other province in the last 40 years), there is a sense here that “the Island way of life” is something worth thinking about, and preserving. At its worst this leads to cruel xenophobia; at its best, however, the mere fact that there is a collective notion that we share a “way of life” — in other words a recognition that we’re all living “in community” — is a rare, even amazing thing. Something we shouldn’t take for granted.
And so while the Island seems to have fared the introduction of the horseless carriage and end of prohibition basically intact, I fear that the coming of Sunday shopping might reflect the smashing of an important buttress against becoming just like everywhere else. And that would be very sad indeed.