Winnipeg grocer fighting $10K Good Friday fine has Supreme Court on his side, law professor says

A Winnipeg grocer who plans to fight a $10,000 fine for breaking Manitoba law by opening on Good Friday has Canadian legal precedent on his side, according to a law professor.

'Laws like this are unconstitutional,' says U of M's Karen Busby

Food Fare owner Munther Zeid holds a $10,000 fine Winnipeg police gave him Tuesday for having one of his stores open on Good Friday. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A Winnipeg grocer who plans to fight a $10,000 fine for breaking Manitoba law by opening on Good Friday has Canadian legal precedent on his side, according to a law professor.

"We've known for 35 years that laws like this are unconstitutional, and I guess it's just been sleeping on the books," said Karen Busby, who teaches at the University of Manitoba.

"But it's ripe for challenge, and he has a very good chance of success."

Munther Zeid, who owns the independent grocery chain Foodfare, said two Winnipeg police officers handed him a $10,000 fine on Tuesday for having his West Portage location open on April 19 — Good Friday.

Manitoba's Retail Businesses Holiday Closing Act prevents stores from operating on holidays defined in the act, including Good Friday. The act includes several exceptions, which exempt pharmacies, casinos, liquor stores and cannabis stores, for example.

Zeid said it's unfair the government can make money by opening casinos on those days, but he can't sell milk or bread. He said earlier this week he plans to fight the fine in court, and called on the province to change the law.

Laws requiring businesses to close for religious holidays have been successfully challenged before, Busby said.

One of the earliest cases to go the Supreme Court of Canada based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ended with the highest court in the land ruling Canada's Lord's Day Act, which required businesses to close on Sundays, was unconstitutional.

"When the purpose of the law is to recognize a religious holiday, exclusive to one group, then it's going to violate the Charter," she said.

"When it says you have to be closed on Easter, Christmas and Good Friday — those are clearly Christian holidays."

Existing statutory holidays exclusionary, psychologist says

Governments can write legislation to intentionally prevent legal challenges under the Charter by invoking the notwithstanding clause, Busby said. The clause, officially called Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, allows provincial or federal authorities to override certain sections of the charter for a period of five years.

Quebec, for example, invoked the clause in its religious symbols bill, which would ban provincial employees including teachers and judges, among others, from wearing signs of their faith.

A government spokesperson said earlier this week individuals have the right to appeal convictions under the act. She added retail establishments with four or fewer employees, including the owner, may be exempt from the restriction.

Busby said she was surprised to see enforcement of the law. But Rehman Abdulrehman, a psychologist who specializes in diversity and inclusion, said it's a difficulty many small business owners from minority communities have faced before.

Current statutory holidays are exclusionary, he said, and often based on Christian or European heritage.

"When we only celebrate one or a few holidays that represent only the cultures and traditions of one group of people, we end up isolating those who don't," he said. "We unintentionally become exclusive, as opposed to inclusive."

'Celebrate everything'

The impact can be far-reaching, Abdulrehman said.

"The research actually shows that it's actually quite psychologically damaging. It has an impact on self-esteem, on perceived self-worth. But it goes further than that. It goes into … performance at school or at work," he said. "Research shows it has a huge impact on our economy, too."

The invisibility of other religious groups in statutory holidays can also artificially inflate race-based self-esteem for people of Christian or European heritage, he said.

"To me, that's the definition of privilege," he said. "People who do come from different backgrounds outside of a Eurocentric, Christian tradition do celebrate their holidays with great difficulty."

Abdulrehman wants to see a new set of statutory holidays that include events from a variety of religions and traditions.

"Our suggestion as psychologists … is to celebrate everything," he said.

"Research shows that actually, if we have a little bit more time off … we become a little bit more productive. So I think there's very good grounds to say that we need more time off, and I think a lot of people would agree to that."

With files from Austin Grabish and CBC Manitoba's Information Radio and Up To Speed