'We can’t believe our own government would act in such a cruel manner': Toy store fined for staying open late

In February 2020, Helen Felemegos says an inspector from Quebec's Ministry of Economy and Innovation dropped by her family's toy store unannounced.

By the end of the year, Jouets LOL Toys received a $2,250 fine in the mail for operating their store past 5 p.m. on a weekend.

"Absolutely unbelievable, we can’t believe our own government would act in such a cruel manner and be so insensitive to the current situation," said Felemegos.

With many brick and mortar stores like hers struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic, she says the fine hits below the belt.

A provincial law restricts the operating hours of commercial establishments. But that law is decades old, and Felemegos says it doesn't fit with the reality small businesses face today.

She says while they have pivoted to online sales, many of their customers prefer to visit the store in person.

"They work, and they enjoy coming during the weekend, and how are we supposed to compete with big box stores that are allowed to stay open later?"

The city can ask for exemptions -- it's done that for festivals and tourist areas, and most recently for record stores.

After several independent record stores were fined up to $3,000 for being open past 5 p.m., they argued the law no longer made sense.

After strong public pressure, those fines were dropped just before their court dates.

The city agreed to change the rules, and now record stores in Montreal can stay open later. But one of the owners who fought for the change questions why more isn't being done to support small independent shops of all kinds.

"Why are their inspectors going around and fining small businesses mere minutes after they’re supposed to be closed, when big box stores such as Archambault can be open way later than an independent store?" said Phonopolis owner Jordan Robson-Cramer.

Archambault is the largest music retailer in Quebec.

In a statement, the mayor's office said there's no "one-size-fits-all solution."

"It is necessary to also weigh the concerns of residents, in many cases. We will speak to the owner of the businesses affected and offer any help we can."

Quebec's economy ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Felemegos says small businesses are the lifeblood of a healthy neighbourhood, and she thinks the city and the province are quietly letting them disappear.

"We’re trying our best to keep the community together but the government seems like it’s just trying to rip us apart," she said.

Her family plans to contest the fine at a court date set for next week.  

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