Flying Buttresses

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.


al's picture
al on October 7, 2006 - 19:02 Permalink

but programmers don’t”

Whoah whoah.. wait.. what?

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on October 7, 2006 - 19:03 Permalink

Okay, okay, so I work on Sundays. And many programmers do. But we’re not necessarily expected to.

Another Islander's picture
Another Islander on October 8, 2006 - 11:42 Permalink

Well said, Peter. Please forward your piece on to the Guardian to add your very intelligent commentary on this issue. Actually, you know what? It would make a great piece for the Globe & Mail Facts and Arguments section on the back page of the first section.

Just to add a little point of my own. Kim Green of the National Capital Commission (I believe that’s the name of the organization she represents) said something to the effect that allowing Sunday shopping would make all the difference in the world to the moribund tourist industry. I don’t think tourists come to PEI to shop. Our stores — outside of the art and craft shops — can be found in any small community in any province in Canada. Do people really think that tourists aren’t coming here because they can’t shop at Walmart or Superstore on Sunday? Get a grip, folks.

Peter, it might be interesting to start a comment section from your web blog community on what they think is responsible for the lagging tourism here. I believe fewer golf courses and the province getting back to what it specializes in — holidays for families — would help. Things like Woodleigh replicas and Rainbow Valley were special and needed government funding to keep them up. Better marketing of our bike trails and kayak/bike vacations. Tip-to-tip bike trips, with someone to provide transportation to start point and from finish point to your vehicle. Maybe someone renting beach umbrellas and selling some refreshments on the beaches. More internet access throughout the Island. And better “policing” for lack of a better word of what Island tourism operators are offering. We have found that often top dollar is charged and a less-than top dollar experience is delivered, which leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

Thanks again for your well-thought-out commentary on the Sunday shopping issue. Please do think of forwarding it on for wider distribution through some form of media — or at the very least — sending it to some of the politicians who will be making a decision on this matter.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on October 9, 2006 - 22:57 Permalink

I was privaleged to hear a brief on future plans from the “Cruise Ship Lobby*” at Rotary last Monday. I was struck (repeatedly) by two themes in Ms. Green’s presentation. To paraphrase; 1) “we’re going to control a visitor’s experience, have them walk where we want them to walk, shop where we want them to shop, etc — just like Disney” and 2) “we’re maximizing the potential of a transient visitor”.

The worst thing about my visit to Mexico last year was the repeated attempts, all over Mexico, by sincere people working hard for their local economy, who continuously tried to get me to do what they saw as best for their interests. It was pushy, phony, and irritating. What made it worse was how they knew that you weren’t staying long in their location or store. They saw us as transient cash machines and behaved aggressively to maximize their profit during the few seconds of contact. Precisely what Charlottetown is planning as a LONG TERM strategy right now! (I’m sure they don’t see it that way, but it was obvious to me and a few other’s at my table).

I bring up tourism as my first point because Ms. Green did. So did Premier Binns. And so did just about everyone else who spoke in favour of Sunday. Gad! are they all nuts? Perhaps they aren’t, perhaps opening the malls on Sunday is just another way of being politely pushy. Sunday shopping is going to stop a “eight year decline in tourism” as Ms. Green repeats? Huh? Take a breath!

Comments to broadcast media similar to, “I have been on the warf and spoken to cruise ship visitors and they want to go to the malls” leaves me questioning whether a zealous spokesperson will create “facts” to support a collective ambition. Leaves credibility in a shambles too.

As usual the vision is very narrow, any sense of what’s special about PEI is absent, and when Binns and Green speak from the same page you can bet at least one of them was told to do so.

You can be certain: there will be Sunday shopping.

Leo's picture
Leo on October 10, 2006 - 18:45 Permalink

I agree with you Peter — I do not understand how Sunday Shopping will increase tourism — there are other factors at work there including the faulty reasoning of people in the industry who do not value the uniqueness of PEI as a draw in bringing in tourists.

Also, many low paid service type workers will be forced to work on a day which they may not wish to but will have no choice but to say yes in case indirect reprisals come their way in terms of being given fewer shifts or assigned more inconvenient shifts by the Box store employers — It was these Box Store employers who actively worked against the spirit of the law in Nova Scotia and then challenged it in court when the majority of Nova Scotians voted against Sunday Shopping in a plebsiscite.

I guess it illustrates that the largest and most dominant belief system/ religion in North America is consumerism/materialism. I chatted with a
few people who moved here from New Hampshire last night who also spend time in France and they lamented that the way of life re shopping and small local stores/markets in France had changes in the past 7 years they travelled to France. Is this another move to have just BIG BOX STORES (see past shopping mall moratorium controversy on PEI) edging out indpendents and mom and pop operators in the name of progress?