Celebrating Labour Day: the holiday Canada gave the world

The first Canadian parade for workers' rights was held in Toronto on April 15, 1872

 

Ottawa (25 August 2006) - Welcome to Labour Day, the holiday that is so much a part of our culture that Canadians rarely pause to consider its true purpose and meaning.

Today, Labour Day is often more associated with fairs and festivals, and a last summer weekend at the cottage, than with what it was meant to be - a heartfelt celebration of workers and their families.

That's too bad, but perhaps not surprising. In a way, the holiday has become a victim of the labour movement's enduring success in improving the lives of working Canadians.

Today we take paid holidays, safe work places, medical care, unemployment insurance, fair hours, union wages and 'the weekend' for granted. But how many of these advances would have happened if it were not for the long-forgotten heroes who fought so hard to make unions, and Labour Day, a reality in the first place?

Labour Day began in Canada on April 15, 1872, a mere five years after Confederation. On that historic day the Toronto Trades Assembly, the original central labour body in Canada, organized the country's first significant 'workers demonstration.'

'Criminal conspiracy'

At the time trade unions were still illegal, and authorities still tried to repress them, even though laws against "criminal conspiracy" to disrupt trade had already been abolished in Britain.

Despite the obstacles, the assembly had emerged as an important force in Toronto. It spoke out on behalf of working people, encouraged union organization and acted as a watchdog when workers were exploited. Occasionally, it also mediated disputes between employers and employees.

By the time the landmark parade was organized in 1872 the assembly had a membership of 27 unions, representing wood workers, builders, carriage makers and metal workers, plus an assortment of other trades ranging from bakers to cigar makers.

One of the prime reasons for organizing the demonstration was to demand the release of 24 leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union, who had been imprisoned for the "crime" of striking to gain a nine-hour working day.

The event took on a life of its own and was one that authorities could not ignore.

10,000 people throng the streets

Held on Thanksgiving Day, which was then observed in the spring, the parade featured throngs of workers and a crowd estimated at 10,000 Torontonians who applauded as the unionists marched proudly through the streets, accompanied by four bands. In speeches that followed, trade union leaders demanded freedom for telecommunication union (ITU) prisoners and better conditions for all workers.

It was a defining moment in Canadian labour history, opening the door to the formation of the broader Canadian labour movement over the next decade and sowing the roots of what is now an annual workers' holiday around the world.

The Toronto parade inspired leaders in Ottawa to stage a similar event. A few months later, on September 3, 1872, seven unions in the nation's capital organized a parade more than a mile long, headed by an artillery band and flanked by city fireman.

The Ottawa parade passed the home of Sir John A. MacDonald, the prime minister. He was hoisted into a carriage and taken to City Hall where, by torch light, he made a ringing promise to sweep away "such barbarous laws" as those invoked to imprison the ITU workers in Toronto.

The 'Old Chieftain' kept his word. Before the year was out the hated laws were gone from the statute books in Canada.

CLC formed in 1883

The Toronto Trades Assembly was replaced in 1881 by the Toronto Trades and Labour Council, which in turn played a major role in founding the Canadian Labour Congress in 1883.

Labour Day celebrations in the United States began in the 1880s, inspired by the beginnings made in Canada.

Initially, Labour Day was celebrated in the spring but that did not last long. After it was declared a legal holiday by the Parliament of Canada on July 23, 1894, the celebration was moved to the early fall, where it has remained ever since.

Around the world today Labour Day is celebrated at different times. In Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia it is known as "May Day" - or International Workers' Day - and it is celebrated on May 1. In New Zealand, it is held on the fourth Monday in October, and in Australia the date varies from state to state across the country.

But wherever it is celebrated, the purpose remains the same. In the same spirit it began so many years ago, it remains a day that affirms the dignity and honour of working people everywhere.

Footnote: This article was originally posted by NUPGE in August 2003.

More information:Toronto Trades Assembly and Toronto Trades and Labour Council