OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
June 7, 1992
Millennials and post-Millennials may be astounded to learn that as little as a generation ago, shopping on Sundays was not permitted except under very limited circumstances.
Service stations could remain open as could corner stores, and shops in designated tourist zones, such as Ottawa's Byward Market. However, shopping malls and grocery stores were required to be closed. And people didn't even dream of buying alcohol on a Sunday. The reason was the Lord's Day Act which forbade shopping on Sunday, a.k.a. the Sabbath.
A prohibition on Sunday business has a very old pedigree, dating back to 321 A.D. to the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine. All city residents and tradesmen were required to rest on Sunday. There were exceptions where a cessation of work was not practical such as in agriculture. The interesting thing is that this first Sunday shopping ban occurred during pagan times. In 386 A.D., shortly after Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, the first reference to the "Lord's Day" appears. Contained in the Codex Theodosianus, the law stated that "on the day of the sun, properly called the Lord's Day, by our ancestors, let there be a cessation of lawsuits, business and indictments."
After the conquest of Quebec in 1763, the four English Sunday observance laws applied to what was to become Canada, as did the 1780 English Act for Preventing Certain Abuses and Profanations on the Lord's Day, called Sunday.
In 1845, under pressure from Methodist and Presbyterian churches, the legislature of the Province of Canada passed its own strict Sunday observance act for Upper Canada called "An Act to Prevent the Profanation of the Lord's Day, commonly called Sunday." Prohibited were all "worldly labour, business or work" as well as tippling, public political meetings, skittles, ball, football, racket, or any other noisy game, gambling, foot races, horse races, swimming, fishing, hunting, or shooting.
In other words, anything that was fun was forbidden.
There were exceptions. If you were attacked by a wolf, you could shoot it. Also, conveying travellers and Her Majesty's mail, selling drugs or medicine, works of charity and "other such works of necessity" were permitted.
The rationale for this law was to ensure that everybody spent Sunday in prayer or doing godly things rather than anything that might be considered worldly or pleasurable. Note for the religiously strict even laughing was frowned upon as there is no reference to Christ laughing in the Bible.
The Bytown City Council passed its own Sunday By-law in 1847 to prevent "nuisances." Such nuisances including anybody who kept open a grocery or eating house on the Sabbath-day within the limits of the town. The penalty was up to 25 shillings.
For the most part, the Sunday Observance Acts were effective in shutting down virtually all business.
The one major exception -- the transmission of the mail on Sundays -- was very controversial. Church groups protested. In 1850, Bytown inhabitants also complained, sending a memorial to the Governor General noting "with deep regret the extensive and legalized system of Sabbath desecration caused by the transmission of Her Majesty's mail, the opening of Post Offices, and the delivery of letter and papers on the Lord's Day."
The government resisted such entreaties, and the mail continued.
Of course, not everybody obeyed the law. Certain industries in remote areas, such as forestry and mining, were serial offenders. As well, those in domestic service didn't seem to qualify for a day of rest.
Many complained about boys playing ball or cricket in Ottawa's streets and on vacant lots on Sundays. Some took umbrage at kids fishing on the Sabbath in the Rideau River at Hog's Back, especially when they openly carried fishing poles and fish past the residences of "respectable" people. "Unless they drop their evil practices they will be summarily brought to justice." On one occasion, five "delinquents" were fined $1 each plus court costs for fishing and bathing on the Sabbath.
In 1866-67, there was an extensive debate in the Daily Citizen on whether skating on a Sunday was legal.
Writing under the pseudonym "Christian Liberty," one citizen maintained that "there was no statute, Imperial or Provincial," which made Sunday skating illegal. "Ruris" wrote that "whether or not there be such a law, [he] was not prepared to skate" and that "there is an enactment of the statute of the Book of the King of kings which says remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy."
"Anti-Cant" called Sabbatarians (people who believe in a literal reading of the of the fourth Commandment such as Ruris), "a set of humbugs and hypocrites." He added, "You big boys and little, who, after close confinement for six days, want to stretch your legs and enjoy the fresh, invigorating air of Heaven on the seventh, slide and skate away, and get roses in your cheeks, and don't be afraid of the police."
The definition of a "work of necessity" was also unclear.
In July 1877, Chief Langrell of the Ottawa Police instructed his men to tell all milk dealers that they must observe the Sabbath or face the consequences -- a fine of up to $50. This injunction set off a wave of protest.
Ottawa police were called the "milk inquisition" and that the Chief was "elevating public morality through the medium of the milk pail." After it was pointed out that milk, especially at the height of an Ottawa summer, was a perishable product and that children needed to drink fresh not sour milk, Chief Langrell relented. However, a few years later, five barbers were less successful. They received summons for shaving customers on the Sabbath. One irate citizen wrote that "it certainly seems ridiculous that bathing or shaving or any other toilet operation should be a crime on Sunday."
In 1888, Sabbatarian churches formed the Ontario Lord's Day Alliance to fight an emerging new unholy threat to Sabbath observance -- The Sunday operation of streetcars in Ontario. After legal challenges, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the Lord's Day Act did not apply to streetcars, railways, telegraph, canal, and steamship companies that operated under a Dominion charter. Appealed again, the case went to the Privy Council in London. In a shocking move to Sabbatarians, the Privy Council ruled in 1903 that the entire Ontario Lord's Day Act was ultra vires, since criminal law was a Dominion responsibility under the British North America Act.
The Dominion Lord's Day Alliance fought back with its members launching a campaign to pressure the Laurier Government to pass a federal Lord's Day Act. In 1905, two members of the Alliance came to Ottawa to address church groups. At Erksine Presbyterian Church, they argued that "our national well-being required that the sacredness of the Sabbath be preserved."
In 1906, the Federal Government complied, passing the Act over the opposition of other religious groups, including Seventh-Day Adventists and Jews, who worship on Saturdays. Sunday business, including sports, was sharply circumscribed.
There was, however, a list of exclusions, including work of domestic servants and health care workers, bakers after 4 p.m., fishermen after 6 p.m. and newspaper operators after 8 p.m. Telegraphs, telephones, the postal service, electrical works, animal husbandry, and certain industrial repairs were also permitted. Maple syrup production was also deemed a work of necessity.
During the Second World War, Sunday restrictions eased slightly. Cinemas in some cities opened on Sundays to provide entertainment for the troops. However, war didn't stop the Lord's Day Alliance from trying to stop market gardeners from tending their gardens on Sundays in 1943.
In 1950, Ontario passed the Lord's Day (Ontario) Act, which complemented the federal law but permitted municipalities to decide for themselves whether to permit sporting events on Sunday afternoons.
Here in Ottawa, it took three public votes on the issue before the Ottawa Rough Riders were finally allowed to play football on Sundays starting in 1965.
To reinforce the provincial Lord's Day Act, the Ontario government passed the Retail Business Holidays Act in 1975 which prohibited most retail stores from operating on a Sunday. The cited reason was to give workers a common day of pause. Now there was two Ontario laws banning Sunday shopping, one religious and one ostensibly secular.
But by the 1980s, popular opinion was beginning to shift in favour of Sunday shopping.
In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd that the Lord's Day Act was unconstitutional under section 2b (freedom of thought, belief opinion and expression) of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Expecting the Retail Business Holiday Act to also be found unconstitutional, stores in Ontario began to open illegally on Sundays. However, the Supreme Court surprised everybody by ruling in the government's favour.
Stores again closed their doors.
Pressure for change shifted to the political front.
Libertarian groups, such as the Freedom Party of Ontario, and the Committee for Fair Shopping, a coalition of grocery store chains, lobbied for freedom of choice. Border communities also lobbied for change as U.S. shops were open on Sundays and attracted Canadian customers. In 1989, the Ontario government dumped the issue into the laps of municipalities by introducing the "local option," where municipalities could decide whether stores in their jurisdictions could open on Sundays.
This satisfied nobody.
In June 1990, an Ontario High Court judge ruled the Retail Business Holiday Act unconstitutional.
Stores in Ontario, including Ottawa, reopened on Sundays. However, eight months later, the Court of Appeal overturned the decision, much to the delight of organized labour and church groups. Subsequently, three Nepean stores, Fresh Fruit Co. on Robertson Road, Top Banana on Merivale Road, and Leather Liquidation also on Merivale Road, were charged with illegally doing business on a Sunday.
But the public had a taste of the forbidden fruit and found it delicious. Public opinion polls began to strongly favour Sunday shopping.
At the beginning of June 1992, the NDP government of Bob Rae, which had previously insisted on a "common pause day to strengthen the family and community life while protecting small businesses and the rights of workers," caved under the pressure. Over the protests of labour unions and the complaints of a psychologist who argued that Sunday shopping would do serious psychological harm to families, the Rae government allowed unfettered Sunday shopping.
A few days later, on Sunday, June 7, 1992, malls and grocery stores opened for business across the province, including Ottawa. A new era in retailing had begun.
On that first day of Sunday shopping in Ottawa, 'mom and pop' stores apparently took a beating as shoppers flocked to the malls. Small independent fruit stores as well as Byward Market shops also experienced a fall in revenues. The iconic Boushey's Fruit Market on Elgin Street posted a 25 per cent decline in sales, and worried that it might have to lay off staff.
In the event, a new retail equilibrium emerged over time.
Contrary to the fears of some, a 2005 study concluded that stores, on average, did not increase the hours of work of existing employees but instead hired a significant number of new employees to accommodate Sunday shopping.
Also contrary to some church fears, Sunday shopping did not lead to social Armageddon, though church attendance continued its decline.
As for Boushey's, the store survived the introduction of Sunday shopping and lasted another 24 years. It closed its doors in 2016. Financial reasons were not a factor.