Creative regulation without reflection, a Montreal trademark

By Dan Delmar on July 22, 2010

Montreal is a city known for overregulation. We have grown accustomed to being punished for a myriad of offences considered banal by any rational person; not holding the Métro escalator handrail, having weeds grow over a decimetre on sidewalks in front of our business, tying a dog’s leash to a tree, spilling cold coffee onto the street…

The latest assault on reason again punishes small and medium-sized businesses. The Métropolitain was prepared for a summer vacation period free of new paternalistic regulation to sift through, but evidently it is asking too much of our municipal leaders to give us this reprieve. 

In 2008, the city graciously allowed businesses in the downtown core to remain open until 8 p.m. on weekend evenings, instead of being forced to close at 5 p.m., as is custom in Quebec. This week, provincial Economic Development Minister Clément Gignac and his counterpart on the city’s executive committee, Richard Deschamps, announced that the trial period was successful and downtown stores could continue doing business for those extra six hours. 

How gracious of Quebec’s political class to grant these merchants a bit more flexibility in deciding how and when they choose to run their businesses. 

The trouble is, some bureaucratic-minded individual at the city of Montreal decided that not all merchants were to be trusted with this grain of newfound freedom. Someone, somewhere evidently took the time to map out what they considered to be desirable shopping areas in Montreal, street-by-street, excluding business in many central and trendy neighbourhoods. 

It was decreed:

« Le secteur concerné par la prolongation des heures d'ouverture des commerces de détail la fin de semaine se délimite de la façon suivante : de l'angle Sherbrooke et Atwater, Sherbrooke vers l'est jusqu'à Saint-Urbain; Saint-Urbain vers le sud jusqu'à Saint-Antoine; Saint-Antoine vers l'ouest jusqu'à De Bleury; De Bleury vers le sud jusqu'à Saint-Jacques; Saint-Jacques vers l'ouest jusqu'à Université; Université vers le sud jusqu'à Notre-Dame; Notre-Dame vers l'ouest jusqu'à De la Montagne; De la Montagne vers le nord jusqu'à Saint-Antoine; Saint-Antoine vers l'ouest jusqu'à Atwater; Atwater vers le nord jusqu'à Sherbrooke; Saint-Laurent entre Sherbrooke et René-Lévesque; Ontario, entre Saint-Urbain et Saint-Dominique; Sainte-Catherine entre Saint-Urbain et Cartier; Saint-Denis, entre Sherbrooke et René-Lévesque; Ontario, entre Berri et Sanguinet; Émery, entre Saint-Denis et Sanguinet; et Amherst entre Robin et René-Lévesque. »

To illustrate this latest absurdity in brief, a small business owner on St. Laurent south of Sherbrooke can stay open until 8 p.m. on weekends. Just metres away, a small business owner on St. Laurent north of Sherbrooke must close at 5 p.m.  

Understandably, those on the northern end of St. Laurent and elsewhere in the city who have an interest in staying open later on weekends are left scratching their heads at yet another complicated regulation that gives some businesses an unfair advantage over others in the same neighbourhood. 

Montreal politicians never disappoint in concocting creative new regulations, truly innovative in their stupidity. 

The city’s position on opening hours and their improvised weekend evening green zone: We must have limits. The position of any rational Montrealer: Why can’t we shop whenever it pleases us?

There is a compelling argument to be made for the welfare of retail workers. It would be wrong to oblige a worker to significantly prolong his or her day, taking away from family time and rest, only to bring home a negligible amount of money. Quebec has had laws that regulate working conditions at large retailers like grocery stores (Four on the Floor); there would be little resistance from the general population in allowing all small and medium-sized business, representing the bulk of our Gross Domestic Product, from keeping their stores open until at least 9 p.m., seven days per week. Also note that this province also has some of the most stringent workplace harassment laws in the Western World. 

With apologies to devout Catholics, the Church has become so irrelevant in modern Quebec society that the “day of rest” argument will surely fall on deaf ears.

Many merchants in high-traffic areas disobey the city’s closing time regulations as it is; most often, during festival season when the cost of a fine is easily absorbed by increased profits. Why not trust business-owners to run their businesses as they please, tackling issues of patronage and human resources as they see fit?

« L'expérience menée en 2008 s'est avérée tout à fait concluante, » according to Mayor Gérald Tremblay. « Consommateurs et touristes apprécient cette offre commerciale bonifiée, qui a des retombées concrètes sur la vitalité économique du centre-ville. C'est pourquoi toutes les conditions sont réunies pour prolonger les heures d'ouverture sur une plus longue période. »

If the experiment has worked, as he freely admits, why not broaden the rules to cover all small and medium-sized business in the city of Montreal?

The answer may come in the form of a backward admission by the Tremblay administration. In giving downtown merchants a leg up on their competitors in the Plateau, the Old Port, Mile End, Outremont, Monkland Village, etc., is there not a tacit acknowledgment that other polices over the years have hurt downtown Montreal? From BIXI stations taking up public parking spaces and bringing in no revenue to public coffers, to the temporary and permanent closings of several central streets, to increased parking rates and the elimination of parking lots, there is no shortage of obstacles for shoppers who want to frequent downtown businesses. 

Instead of easing up on anti-vehicle policies that municipal governments are ill-equipped to manage, this administration apparently has realized that the downtown business community is in need of a boost at the expense of other equally shopper-friendly areas; they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. 

It should not be a municipal government’s responsibility to pass judgment on how an ordinary merchant conducts his day-to-day business. These are restrictions that can seriously harm the bottom-line in an increasingly competitive marketplace, where consumers continue to opt for mega-retailers with lower prices that send their revenue out-of-province. Some serious reflection is needed on the part of city officials before they arbitrarily decide to sketch out boundaries, further persecuting hard-working Montrealers. 

Today, under this paternalistic municipal regime, freedom is defined as buying a vintage Expo ’67 t-shirt on The Main at 8:01 p.m. on Sunday night.


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