Why are Nova Scotians still discussing Sunday shopping?

July 11, 2006

Nova Scotians thought they had put the issue to rest in the plebiscite less than two years ago. Yet here we are with Sunday shopping once again on the front pages.

The plebiscite confirmed the majority of Nova Scotians, including small retail business owners, don’t want Sunday shopping. But rather than accept the will of the people, business leaders and big retailers have continued in their campaign to get rid of restrictions on shopping on the premise that it is only a matter of time before Nova Scotians see the error of their ways – resistance is futile.

Advocates portray Nova Scotians not in favour of seven-day shopping as being out of step with reality and holding back the tides of progress. In fact, Nova Scotians against Sunday shopping are very much in touch with reality. They are concerned about the impact it will have on workers, the environment, our families, communities and small businesses. They want to ensure the survival of small retailers. They want limits set on the increasing encroachment of the market and commercialism into our lives and communities. And they have stated that they have values beyond their role as consumers.

But the big retailers have other priorities. Not to be constrained by democracy, some retailers continue to challenge the expressed intent of the majority of Nova Scotians. Taking advantage of the loopholes in legislation, drugstore chains have expanded into selling groceries, and the big grocery retailers are opening on Sundays. The provincial government has responded appropriately by introducing legislation that attempts to close the loopholes.

Some business leaders and lobbyists, such as chambers of commerce, feel promoting the will of the people through regulations sends the wrong message to businesses and investors. Apparently, telling investors Nova Scotians value life beyond the malls and shopping centres will scare businesses away. Are we supposed to set our public policy agenda based on the interests of potential investors? So what would be the appropriate message to send to investors? Invest in Nova Scotia, we’ll do whatever you want regardless of what citizens of the province want?

This gets at the crux of the seven-day shopping issue. For too long, politicians have given corporations free rein over our economy and communities. It’s not just Sunday shopping regulations big businesses are against. They oppose regulations of any sort that might impede their pursuit of higher profits, such as regulations that protect workers, the environment and our communities.

Corporations are pushing public policy that suits their view of society. People are seen as workers and consumers, rather than citizens with values and interests beyond the marketplace. It may surprise some corporations to know that in a democracy, citizens – through their governments – set the terms under which corporations operate. It is a key way of collectively protecting and shaping the future of our communities in the face of corporate pressure.

Ignoring the results of the plebiscite also has potential implications for the state of democracy in Nova Scotia. Citizens are already cynical about the value of voting. The 61 per cent voter turnout in the recent provincial election is the lowest on record. Failing to follow through on the plebiscite sends the message to citizens that voting doesn’t make a difference. So why bother? The provincial government’s stated intention of holding another plebiscite on the issue doesn’t help matters. Are we facing the prospect of more plebiscites until citizens tire of the issue and succumb to the pressure from big retailers? Would you bother to vote if you knew that the result of the plebiscite was going to be ignored anyway?

Nova Scotians stated their intentions in the plebiscite and it is the job of the politicians to ensure that decision is upheld. Could the current legislation under consideration be improved? Sure. But rather than resort to partisan politics, the opposition parties need to work with the government to develop legislation that closes the Sunday shopping loopholes. Drugstores need to be restricted to their core business, and the Pete’s Frootique outlets need to be covered by the legislation. The labour standards code also needs to provide supports to all workers currently working on Sundays, regardless of which sector they work in.

Enough discussion. The provincial government has a mandate and we need to move on to address the pressing challenges our province faces, such as poverty, education, health and protecting the environment.

John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (www.policyalternatives.ca), an independent public policy research institute.