Big business behind holiday shopping in Ottawa’s Glebe

Looking south on Bank Street in The Glebe.  Photo: James Morgan

Looking south on Bank Street in The Glebe. Photo: James Morgan

The idea of a holiday is to have time off from work, so what happens when the rules get changed to make it possible to work on a holiday? A few months ago, the rules got changed in Ottawa to allow retail businesses in Ottawa’s Glebe neighborhood to open on public holidays. That means many of them will be open for business on October 10, Canadian Thanksgiving Monday. Ontario law allows for municipal councils to designate neighborhoods, or even entire towns as tourist areas and give them permission to open on public holidays—as long as the business owners in the community want it.

The Glebe isn’t the sort of neighborhood where one would think the business owners would be lobbying city hall to open on holidays. It’s a gentrified area, mostly composed of small businesses and specialty shops. Its politics are decidedly liberal and progressive. It’s the sort of neighborhood where a four-day work week seems more likely than opening on holidays.

The Whole Foods at Lansdowne Park in The Glebe.  Photo: James Morgan

The Whole Foods at Lansdowne Park in The Glebe. Photo: James Morgan

I stopped in the other day at a popular independent bakery and café on Bank Street in the Glebe, just down the block from a sculpture promoting themes like diversity and acceptance. As I ordered my wheat-free chocolate chip cookies and a cup of tea, I asked the woman behind the counter if the shop is open on Thanksgiving. She was one of the managers but did not give her name. She said the shop is closed on Thanksgiving, and added that most of the other small, independent businesses on Bank Street in the Glebe will be closed. The woman said that it still costs a lot to be open on a public holiday because employees are still required by law to be paid more for working on those days. She continued to say that business is usually pretty slow on holidays anyway and besides, on Thanksgiving “people have already eaten.”

She told me the main drive behind getting the right to open on holidays was not from the small business owners, but from Whole Foods, which has a store on the edge of the neighborhood in the Lansdowne Park complex, along with several other chain stores that would benefit from being open. Big companies can more easily afford to pay employees who work on holidays than can small business owners. The issue of requiring people to be away from their family and friends on a holiday is also less of a burden. Decision makers at head office don’t usually know every employee at each store in the chain.

There was a time in Ontario that literally nothing was open on holidays and Sundays. The centers of small towns were eerily quiet with yellow transparent blinds drawn over shop windows to protect the merchandise on display from fading in the sun. In cities, the odd chain drugstore may be open for a limited time in the afternoon. In rural areas, cheese factories were ironically open because milk processing is a non-stop job. Stopping for a bag of fresh curd was a popular Sunday drive treat for many. Restaurants were commonly open though and gas stations in larger towns and cities were almost always open. Businesses opening on holidays, whether it’s in Ottawa’s Glebe or a small village is an indication of the contemporary challenge of big business versus small and work versus personal time.

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