The government of Nova Scotia has changed its laws to allow Sunday shopping, which has long been a contentious issue in the province. Just before its fall session wrapped up on Oct. 30, the legislature amended the Retail Business Uniform Closing Day Act to allow shopping from 1 to 6 p.m. on the six Sundays before Christmas.

Tory Premier John Hamm, a former rural doctor, has strong feelings on Sunday shopping and had long resisted pressure to ease the restrictions. “This will give consumers a chance to try out the option,” he said. A province-wide plebiscite will be held in the fall of 2004 to decide whether the idea meets with public approval and to determine whether to extend Sunday shopping year-round.

Being in a minority position since the August 5 election, his government needed the help of the NDP opposition party to get the legislation to a final vote. The NDP used the opportunity to get changes to the labour standards code, including protection for employees who refuse to work on Sundays.

The restaurant and food services sector is upset with labour code changes that were a condition of NDP support. Said member Luc Erjavec, “They are going to affect almost every employer in the province, (making it more expensive to operate) for the sake of allowing a few stores to open Sundays.”

Earlier this year, the government spent $98,000 to research the attitudes of Nova Scotians on the issue. “The polling told us they wanted a choice on the issue,” said Hamm. It revealed that most urban voters are in favour of seven-days-a-week shopping, but most rural voters oppose it. The tourism sector claims the ban is costing millions in lost revenue. The business community is split, with most small to medium businesses opposing it.

Opposition leader Kevin Deveaux of the NDP considers Sunday shopping “inevitable” and is upset that the Hamm government spent so much on the survey. He considers it a waste of taxpayers’ money and the plebiscite unnecessary. Liberal leader Danny Graham, whose party favours Sunday shopping, also thinks the plebiscite is a bad idea. Others also agree.

Meeting earlier in the year, municipal leaders from across Nova Scotia objected to tying a Sunday shopping plebiscite to municipal elections. “It’s a provincial resolution, not a municipal one,” said Jerry Blumenthal, a past president of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities. “Since it is not a municipal responsibility, it shouldn’t have anything to do with the municipal elections.”

Some say wrapping the issue into municipal elections could confuse people on what municipal governments are all about. Others worry that if the issue is decided on municipal election day, voter turnout may be low in areas where mayors or councillors are elected by acclamation.

But Deputy Premier Ron Russell says having the plebiscite on municipal ballots would save the province $1 million to $2 million, and is “by far the most efficient, effective and economical way of getting an answer.”

Through it all, voters calling radio shows and writing letters to the papers and politicians have tried with little success to generate serious consideration of the negative social and personal impact of year-round retailing.