Margaret MacQuarrie is a freelance writer living in Dartmouth.
The new year has barely begun, and Atlantic Canadians are already preparing, with heavy hearts, to say goodbye to a legend at the end of this month – an icon that was born and raised here, and went on to touch the lives of people across the country.
Don’t worry: Anne Murray, Rick Mercer and Sarah McLachlan are fine.
I’m talking about the Sobeys bag.
Before Sobeys became a household name in Canada, it was a meat delivery service founded in 1907 in the small town of Stellarton, N.S. By 1924, it had evolved into a grocery business serving the Pictou area, and by the 1980s, it had become Atlantic Canada’s grocery giant. Now, it is the second-largest food retailer in Canada, and it’s expanded through stores such as Foodland, FreshCo, IGA, Safeway and Rachelle Béry.
But as much as Sobeys has become a big shot – like so many other easterners who went out West to make good – they’ll always be bluenosers to us. That’s why we refer to all plastic grocery-store bags as Sobeys bags. It matters not one whit which store they actually came from or which logo they sport. Whether it’s a classic Sobeys’ white bag with the orange and green circles, Walmart’s grey sack, Superstore’s pale-green pouch, or No Frills’ yellow tote, they’re all Sobeys bags, to us.
The academic Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, released in 1967, even defines the Sobeys bag thusly: “a plastic bag. Example: ‘There it was, lying at the foot of my driveway, in a Sobey’s bag as wet as hell.' ”
It’s part of our vernacular, right up there with “sook” (when someone’s looking sad about something relatively small, you tell them to “stop your sooking!”), “some” or “right” (a grammar-dismissing stand-in for “very,” as in “that car was going some fast” or “it’s right cold outside”), “slippy” (“Watch your step, it’s slippy out”), “scribbler” (what you might call a notebook, and preferably the Hilroy brand), and “come from away” (you’ve seen the musical about the collision between rerouted come-from-aways and Newfoundlanders, right?).
Unfortunately, the bag that has become so much a part of our culture turns out to be bad for the planet. Last summer, Sobeys announced it will switch to paper grocery bags from plastic in all its stores by the end of 2020, and rightly so: Plastic bags create pollution both in their manufacturing and disposal, and can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. They end up in the stomachs of whales and tortoises, or are ingested by the marine life we eat.
The move itself, part of a global effort to reduce single-use plastics, is perfectly logical. But what Atlantic Canadians have a harder time fathoming is this: Who in their right mind is throwing out a perfectly good Sobeys bag after one use? Now that’s a sin.
When you’ve long been a have-not part of the country like us, you learn to be resourceful. Maybe that’s why we’ve always found multiple uses for this much-beloved bag.
What do you do if your rain boot springs a soaker? Put a Sobeys bag around your foot and voila: nice dry feet. (Older folks will argue that Ben’s Holsum Bread bags were the boot liner of choice, but that’s a generational thing.)
Running in from the garden for just a second and don’t want to go through the hassle of taking your shoes off at the door? Keep a couple of Sobeys bags in the porch and you won’t get screamed at for tracking mud through the kitchen.
Caught in the rain without an umbrella or rain hat – something that can happen just about every day in these parts? I guarantee you won’t be the only one holding a Sobeys bag over your head.
Kids up to mischief? Pull out that old Maritime threat: “I’ll have you all chopped up in a Sobeys bag if you don’t do as you’re told!”
The bags are also a great way to spot a fellow Atlantic Canadian when you’re travelling in a foreign country, and they’re a quick fix for in-a-pinch needs. Tie a line to a bag and you can join your friends sailing kites on Citadel Hill. String one in a tree and you’ve got yourself a cheap Halloween-ghost decoration. (Yes, we do that. And yes, that’s probably a sign this is the right move for the environment.)
From wrapping up leftovers, to separating dirty laundry in your luggage, to acting as a poor man’s Crazy Carpet for sledding, the list of uses is long. No wonder Sobeys bags – both the original and all the others – have earned such nicknames as the Sackville suitcase, the bayman’s briefcase and, when filled with ice, the Cape Breton beer cooler.
The Sobeys bag as we know it first appeared in stores in 1981, the same year Prince Charles and Diana got married, leg warmers were in fashion, Seeing Things made its debut on CBC, and the Irish Rovers hit the charts with Wasn’t that a Party.
But just like some of the things on that list, the plastic Sobeys bag was not destined to be part of our lives forever. Prince Edward Island banned plastic bags in 2019. Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and parts of New Brunswick will follow suit later in 2020.
Sobeys is the first national grocery chain to pro-actively withdraw them – they’ll be gone by January’s end. But that won’t be it for many easterners: We’re filling our boots, stockpiling the bags to preserve these historical artifacts before they become history. There’s just nothing like a Sobeys bag for cleaning up kitty litter, lining the garbage pail, keeping your bike seat dry in the rain, bringing home your wet bathing suit from the beach, hanging your books in your school locker when it doesn’t have a shelf, and holding the clothes pins.
And where are we going to be storing all those bags? Check under our sinks, in our pantries, or hanging off the knobs on the backs of our basement doors. It’ll be there, I guarantee it: a Sobeys bag, full of Sobeys bags.
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