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Monday May 10, 2010

Bah Humbug: Toronto Looks at Eliminating Christmas, New Years for Retailers

By John Jalsevac

May 10, 2010 ( – “Bah humbug!” These two words have come to embody the lack of Christmas spirit, but even Scrooge, the money-grubbing, Christmas-loathing protagonist of Charles Dickens’ classic tale who infamously uttered the phrase, begrudgingly gave his clerk Christmas Day off.

Councillors for the City of Toronto, however, are now considering a proposal that would go a step further than even Scrooge was willing to go, and eliminate the few remaining mandatory holidays that exist for retailers in the city – including Christmas, New Year’s and Canada Day. Proponents of the idea cite the “diversity” of Toronto, and say that the measure is necessary to ensure that Toronto retailers stay competitive.

“We’ve arrived in the 21st century,” said Councillor Brian Ashton, a supporter of the measure.

“Toronto is no longer a provincial town, it’s a cosmopolitan centre that’s open 24 hours a day. It acts different and it feels different.”

Toronto City Council will likely vote on Thursday or Friday whether to allow all Toronto stores to be open every day of the year, including New Year’s Day, Family Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Victoria Day, Canada Day, Labour Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

Under present rules, only some stores — those in designated tourist areas such as the Eaton Centre, and Mississauga’s Square One — are allowed to open.

But the proposal has also drawn sharp criticism from some who argue that there is little evidence of popular demand for 365-days-a-year shopping, and who lament the demise of the very few remaining days of rest in the city.

While the measure has largely flown beneath the radar until now – and, barring a Christmas miracle, is expected to pass later this week – opponents are starting to make their voices heard, and are urging Torontonians to do everything they can to make sure the measure doesn’t live to see the weekend.

“The move to end the very few common holidays still permitted to retail employees should be opposed,” said the Catholic Civil Rights League in a statement Monday. “We have already seen how Sunday shopping moved from a limited option to an almost universal practice, disrupting religious and family time, creating noise and traffic problems and in practice giving little choice to employees and businesses.”

When the City Council first discussed the controversial proposal in late April, the lone councillor who stood against it was Case Ootes.

Ootes protested at the time that, “I’ve never had anybody ask me, ‘Why can’t I shop on Canada Day?’ I never have. And I think it’s not just a question of business, I think it’s how we perceive the quality of life.”

“There’s such a thing as the pendulum swinging too far,” he said.

A call requesting an interview from Ootes went unanswered by press time.

Fr. Alphonse de Valk, editor of the Toronto-based Catholic Insight, also slammed the proposal this week, and urged Torontonians to lobby their councilors against it.

“The greedy, the godless, and the childless want to steal the last few holidays from the working and middle classes,” he said.

While supporters of the plan say that employees cannot legally be forced to work on the holidays, De Valk dismissed their arguments, pointing out that the same claims were made in regard to allowing shopping on Sundays.

“No employee would be forced to work on Sunday, it was argued,” he said. “What a farce! In reality only those prospective employees who agree to work on Sunday are even hired. Others not already employed are ‘persuaded’ to work on Sunday. And some employers feel obliged to open on Sunday, whether they want to or not, in order not to lose market share. So much for Sunday being a day of rest.”

Marcus Gee, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, agreed with De Valk’s analysis of the plan’s coercive impact in a late-April column. Gee questioned the notion that shopkeepers are simply being given the “choice” to open on those days.

“Is it really a choice?” he asked. “The shopkeeper who sees his rival across the street open on holidays may feel he has no choice but to follow. In a competitive world, the result of lifting the ban will be to turn what used to be common pause days into shopping days like any other. Thousands of workers who would normally have had the day off will be called in to work.”

Gee concluded his column by reminiscing about the days when “things came to a halt on Sundays.”

“That day had a whole different feeling from the others,” he said. “The streets were quiet. The world slowed down.

“Those days are indeed gone. This is a bigger (and much better) city now. But limits on holiday shopping preserved at least a few days of relative calm. Do we really want to throw away those last, precious pauses in a shop-till-you-drop world?”

Opponents of the measure are urging those of like mind to flood the telephones and emails of Toronto councillors over the next few days urging them to vote against the intiative.

To contact City Council members