Why Boxing Day shopping in Ontario used to be a really big deal

From the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s, it was against the law for Ontario stores to open on December 26. In one city, it still is
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on December 27, 2018
black and white of a Simpsons ad
Ad from the December 26, 1987, issue of the Toronto Star.

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As Ontarians descend on stores this Boxing Day, it’s easy to forget that for two decades, shopping on December 26 was one of the most contentious issues in the province. From the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s, the Retail Business Holidays Act prohibited retailers from opening that day. Some did anyway, viewing the fines they received as the cost of doing business. Proponents of the law argued that workers deserved another full day of rest to spend with their families, while others saw it as anything from a violation of the religious freedoms of non-Christians to a waste of police time.

Introduced by the Progressive Conservatives in 1975, the act was intended, as Solicitor General John McBeth noted, “to slow the growing commercialism and materialism about us.” Designed to act as a check on those municipalities that allowed Sunday shopping, the law established fines of up to $10,000 for businesses that opened on Sundays or on eight statutory holidays.  

Business owners and communities immediately began looking for loopholes. “Convenience stores” — originally defined as retail businesses with up to three employees (including the owner) and less than 2,400 square feet of public floor space — were exempted. Stores could open if they were in designated tourist areas. Many owners of larger businesses resented both smaller retailers and those with tourist exemptions — increasingly, they became willing to risk the fines.

Critics charged that the law didn’t take into account the changing nature of families, whose time together the act was supposed to protect. “Many of the families pouring into the illegally open stores could not shop together on other days,” a Globe and Mail editorial observed in 1984. “With more women moving into the work force, that will increasingly occur.” In a 1986 editorial, the Toronto Star suggested that the solution was to change the act “to allow merchants to set their own opening and closing days and hours according to what they think the market demands.”

Toronto furrier Paul Magder, Edwards Books and Art, and Longo’s attempted to have the act overturned, but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against them in 1986. In his decision, Chief Justice Brian Dickson wrote that “the desirability of enabling parents to have regular days off work in common with their child’s day off from school, and with a day off enjoyed by most other community and family members is self-evident.”

Confusion reigned when Boxing Day fell on a Saturday in 1987. Faced with the prospect of a three-day closure, the Hudson’s Bay Company appealed to the province to allow it and other stores to open on Sunday, December 27. Some retailers believed that they could make use of a section of the law that allowed retailers to open on Sundays if they closed on Saturdays for religious reasons. The Liberal government initially threatened to close that loophole and to lay charges against anyone who opened on the 27th. After declaring that the law was the law, though, Attorney General Ian Scott changed his mind at the beginning of December, announcing that stores wouldn’t be prosecuted if they opened that day.

Yet the government continued to waffle. Shortly before Christmas, Solicitor General Joan Smith sent letters to mall owners requesting that stores be allowed to remain closed on the 27th even if their leases required them to be open whenever the mall was. When cabinet members proved unwilling to discuss long-term changes to the act, Progressive Conservative house leader Mike Harris told the legislature that “the public is becoming more and more outraged by this fiasco.” No charges were laid on December 27, but stores that opened on Boxing Day and remained closed on Sunday were fined. Some department stores, such as Eaton’s and Holt Renfrew, waited until December 28 to reopen. “We talked to our staff,” Holt Renfrew executive Bonnie Brooks told the Globe and Mail. “They preferred not to work on Sunday and they had worked very hard through the entire Christmas season. Plus, as far as we’re concerned, we still believe in Sunday.”

As the number of retailers violating the law grew, so did the penalties. On Boxing Day 1989, police in Metro Toronto charged 177 stores. After receiving a petition signed by 400 workers from the city’s shopping malls, Windsor City Council passed a bylaw in 1990 that declared December 26 a civic holiday. “Practically speaking, it’s unenforceable from the start,” councillor and future Windsor mayor Mike Hurst told the Windsor Star. “We have one bylaw person for the police service, and, as I understand it, that person doesn’t work on Boxing Day. How are they going to decide what businesses they’re going to pick on in order to enforce it?”

The NDP government revised the act in 1991. Shopping on Sundays in December and on Boxing Day was still off limits, and the maximum fine for opening was raised to $50,000. But retailers continued to ignore the law — many felt that if they didn’t, their competitors would come out ahead. While looking at the line outside his Yonge Street flagship that year, Sam “the Record Man” Sniderman told the Globe and Mail that he had opened because of public demand. “If we hadn’t opened, I think they would have busted in our windows.” Down the street, HMV president Paul Alofs noted that his store had managed to cover the cost of a fine within the first 10 minutes of sales. The next year, the government repealed the Sunday shopping ban — but Boxing Day remained verboten, and the NDP told violators that it would show no mercy.

Over the next few years, cities chipped away at the remaining Boxing Day restrictions. Windsor gave tourist exemptions to several neighbourhoods and four shopping centres in 1994. When Metro Toronto granted the Eaton Centre a long-desired tourist-area exemption in 1995, councillors argued over whether Boxing Day shopping represented moral greed or simply the opportunity for family excursions. Police were tired of wasting their time. In 1995, an unnamed officer asked the Toronto Star, “Who’s getting hurt? All the people working here are students. Nobody’s being forced to work.”

“Boxing Day is like another Sunday,” Sparks Street Mall official Ken Dale told the Ottawa Citizen in 1994. “If you’re going to open on Sundays, what makes Boxing Day so sanctimonious?”

A lower court agreed. In a May 1996 decision, it found that the Retail Business Holidays Act violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by setting unequal standards in terms of business activity and when people could decide to work. While labour officials weren’t happy — Ontario Federation of Labour president Gord Wilson was “mad as hell” and “bet employers are on their knees” kissing the judge’s robes — municipalities, retailers, and shoppers were thrilled. Local bylaws were drafted to allow shopping on December 26. On December 17, the province passed legislation dropping Boxing Day from the act.

Two communities held out. Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury continued to restrict Boxing Day shopping — local leaders argued that their citizens didn’t want it. Sudbury eventually reversed course after a 2014 referendum, but the Sault continues to treat December 26 as a day of rest.

Sources: the October 30, 1975, December 27, 1984, and December 27, 1991, editions of the Globe and Mail; the December 22, 1987, and December 27, 1994, editions of the Ottawa Citizen; the June 1, 1996, edition of The Record; the January 5, 1986, December 18, 1986, December 24, 1987, January 1, 1988, July 26, 1995, and December 27, 1995, editions of the Toronto Star; and the December 4, 1990, December 29, 1992, March 3, 1993, and December 23, 1994, editions of the Windsor Star.

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