Canadian Holidays: LABOUR DAY

Canadian Holidays: LABOUR DAY David Watts 10 July 2003

Most of us give no more thought to Labour Day, our last annual fair weather holiday weekend, than to Victoria Day, our first annual outdoor one.

Both began more than a century ago in other countries: Victoria Day in Britain, the centre of the Emprire that became the Commonwealth, and Labour Day, in the United States of America.

Both holidays have a distinct Canadian angle. Victoria Day lasted longer in Canada than anywhere else in the world since she was Queen when our country took its present form.

The proclamation of the first Monday in September as Labour Day took place in Canada in 1894 twenty-five days after its proclamation in the U.S.

Yet, like many other innovations first patented or popularized south of the border, the impetus for Labour Day originated in Canada twenty-two years earlier. The first significant workers’ demonstration in North America was organized by the Toronto Trades Assembly April 15, 1872.

10,000 Torontonians turned out to watch a parade of workers keep step with four marching bands and listen to calls for an end to laws that made union membership a criminal conspiracy

Four months later seven unions in Ottawa organized a parade 2 km long. They called at Sir John A’s home, hoisted and carried him downtown in a carriage flanked by torch carrying firefighters.

The Prime Minister played along. When the parade reached City Hall, he promised from the steps that party would abolish “such barbarous laws from the statute books.”—a promise kept that year.

The tradition of parades and demonstrations continued for a decade, with cross-border traffic.

An invitation to New York Labour leader Peter McGuire to speak at a July 1882 Toronto picnic and demonstration led to the first official Labour festival in New York in September of that year.

These events combined workers’ family picnics with a political cause of evangelical fervour. The chance for family life was often minimal with a seven day, seventy and eighty hour work week.

Reducing that to six days afternoon off was a major achievement that cost the lives of protestors at the Haymarket Riots in Chicago in 1869. These were remembered as martyrs years afterward.

With the decline of unions in our own time, we need to remember the standards for unions stood and struggled. We can acknowledge with gratitude the gains made in Labour legislation and the rights of free speech, assembly and organization in our Charter, that Labour standards depend on.

We can be thankful for pensions and medical and dental care plans that are often part of the workplace for some, and Employment Insurance for those who are out of work.

Labour Day began with the organized of workers in large industries. Farmers and fisherman were considered self-employed. Today we can include in our remembering all men, women and youth who work for others—in homes, offices and eateries, industrial and social service establishments

We can remember how Canada played a part in the labour movement and the Labour Day holiday

We can acknowledge that work is a part of life that cannot be allowed to dominate the whole

All power—government, corporate and labour—unchecked, can become self-serving.

In this awareness, we can use organized labour as a check and watchdog in an international age so that globalism can serve the world’s peoples as more than an instrument of corporate feudalism.

Remember this as you as you drive back from the lake for another year of work and schooling.