Labour Day is a holiday that has become a part of our history and culture, yet we rarely stop and consider its true meaning and origin.
Today, Labour Day is often more associated with fall fairs and festivals, or a last summer weekend at the cottage, than with what it was meant to be — a celebration of workers and their families. It is perhaps not that surprising as the holiday has become a victim of labour's ongoing success in improving the lives of working Canadians.
Today we take our paid holidays, safe workplaces, medical care, unemployment insurance, fair hours, union wages and 'the weekend' for granted. However, many of these advances would not have occurred had it not been for all those long-forgotten heroes who fought so hard for so long to make them a reality in the first place.
This Monday, Canada and the United States celebrate Labour Day to honour the struggles and sacrifices made during the labour movement that brought about the favourable working conditions that workers enjoy today. Most countries around the world celebrate Labour Day on May 1 to commemorate a workers’ union demonstration demanding an eight-hour workday in Chicago in 1886.
At present, Labour Day in Canada and United States is casually understood to be a day of merrymaking with family and friends, marking the end of summer. I always say Labour Day as the end of my freedom and quite often my last chance to visit the Ex.
Two centuries ago, however, the concept of a Labour Day celebrated on the first Monday of September every year was conceived to pay homage to the workers’ union movements.
The idea of a public holiday is just about two centuries old. It is only from the 19th century that public holidays were initiated by the government with the idea of building citizens, who would be more strongly committed to the nation state. In America for instance, July 4 became one such event.
As noted by historians Craig Heron and Steven Penfold, Canada moved in this direction of marking days for public celebrations far more slowly. By the 1870s, the only two days marked out as public holidays were Queen Victoria’s birthday and Dominion Day, both of which basically acknowledged Canada’s status within the empire.
Labour Day began in Canada on April 15, 1872, just five years short 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.’
We must remember that at that time trade unions were still illegal in Canada, and the authorities were attempting to repress them. By the time the landmark parade was organized in 1872, the assembly had a membership of 27 unions nationwide, 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 (TTU), who had been imprisoned for the "crime" of striking to gain a nine-hour working day.
In 1873, the Toronto Trades Assembly called a national convention and set up the first national central organization, the Canadian Labour Union (CLU), which in 1886 became the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC), which was one of the forerunners of the present Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), now the major national labour organization in Canada.
Labour Day celebrations in the United States did not begin until the 1880s, inspired no doubt by the Canadian celebration.
Let us take a closer look at this event from 1872 that would take on a life of its own, one that the authorities of the time could not ignore.
Labour Day has its roots in an 1872 printers’ strike in Toronto. Fighting for a nine-hour workday, the strikers’ victory was a major milestone in the changing relations between Canadian workers and their government.
It is hard for many of us to identify with stories of labour "strife" as today much of what we hear about the subject is dominated by disputes between millionaire athletes and billionaire owners. However, history provides us with a useful perspective on a period when working people had to fight to work less than 12 hours a day. The "Nine Hour Movement" began in Hamilton, Ontario, but quickly spread to Toronto, where the call was taken up by the Toronto Typographical Union.
In 1869, the union sent a petition to its members' employers requesting a weekly reduction in hours per week to 58, placing itself among the leading advocates in the industrialized world for a shorter work week. Their request was refused outright by the owners of the printing shops, most vehemently by George Brown of The Globe.
By 1872, the union's stand had hardened from a request to a demand, to a threat to strike. The employers called the demand for a shorter work week "foolish," "absurd," and "unreasonable." As a result, on March 25, 1872 the printers went on strike.
On April 15, a demonstration was held to show solidarity amongst the workers of Toronto. A parade of some 2,000 workers marched through the city, headed by marching bands. By the time the parade reached Queen's Park, the sympathetic crowd had grown to 10,000.
The employers of the time fought the strikers by bringing in replacement workers from small towns. Brown launched a counterattack with legal action against the union for "conspiracy." Brown's action revealed the astonishing fact that according to the laws of Canada, union activity was indeed considered a criminal offence. Under the law, which dated back to 1792, police arrested and jailed the 24 members of the strike committee.
Strangely, the movement found an ally in prime minister John A. Macdonald. Probably since Brown was an old Liberal rival, who had made himself a hated man among the workers of Canada, Macdonald was quick to capitalize. MacDonald promised to wipe the "barbarous laws" restricting labour from the books.
Macdonald then came to the rescue of the imprisoned men and on 14 June passed the Trade Unions Act, which legalized and protected union activity. Macdonald's move not only embarrassed his rival Brown but also earned him the enduring support of the working class.
In the short-term the effects for the workers were very damaging. Many lost their jobs and were forced to leave Toronto. The long-term effects, however, were positive. After 1872, almost all union demands included the nine-hour day and the 54-hour week. The Toronto printers were pioneers of the shorter work week in North America. Meanwhile, campaigns for an eight-hour day were already gaining in popularity, and would eventually take hold, in the United States.
The fight of the Toronto printers had a second legacy, of course. The parades held in support of the Nine Hour Movement and the printers' strike led to an annual celebration. In 1882, American labour leader Peter J. McGuire witnessed one of these labour festivals in Toronto. Inspired, he returned to New York and organized the first American Labor Day on Sept. 5 of the same year.
Throughout the 1880s, pressure built in Canada to declare a national labour holiday and on July 23, 1894, the government passed a law-making Labour Day official. A huge Labour Day parade took place in Winnipeg that year. It stretched some five kilometres.
The tradition of a Labour Day celebration quickly spread across Canada and the continent. It had all begun in Toronto with the brave stand of the printers' union.
As the event had grown more popular nationwide, labour organizations pressured governments to declare the first Monday in September a statutory holiday. Thus, the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital in Canada (1886–89) recommended that the federal government establish a “labour day.” Before this, the day had official status in only a few municipalities. Montreal, for example, declared it a civic holiday in 1889.
In March and April 1894, more than 50 labour organizations from Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Manitoba, and British Columbia petitioned parliamentarians. These groups included several regional trade and labour councils, as well as local assemblies of the Knights of Labor. They based their lobbying movement on similar initiatives from American unions.
In the House of Commons, a bill sponsored by the prime minister prompted the debate about the holiday’s legal status in May 1894. The House passed an amended holiday law without major discussion. It received royal assent on July 23. The United States government also recognized the holiday in 1894.
The provinces had no choice but to adapt. For example, Quebec parliamentarians announced that the province’s courts would not sit on the first Monday in September of that year. It wasn’t until 1899 that the province granted the holiday legal status, ordering school boards to delay the start of classes until after the first Monday in September.
Initially, Labour Day had been 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, Labour Day is celebrated at different times. In Europe, Latin America, in 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.
Until the early 1950s, labour organizations held similar Labour Day celebrations throughout Canada. They tread a fine line between politics and pleasure, maintaining the tradition of the Victorian-era holidays. The event served as a forum for unions to voice their demands. But it also helped build working-class identity and allowed time for rest and socializing outside the workplace.
The image of the tradesman and the male breadwinner was front and centre in the festivities. Although working women attended and helped organize events by preparing food for participants, they rarely featured in the parade.
The military-style marching was at odds with the image of respectability imposed upon women at the time. But for a few exceptions, their role was limited to waving at the crowd from floats as wives or ancillary workers. The absence of unskilled and non-unionized workers also limited the participation of immigrant workers, members of racialized communities and Indigenous people.
In the 1950s, Labour Day festivities began to draw fewer and fewer participants. In Montreal, organizers tried for a time to replace the parade with a performance and ceremonies. They saw little success, however.
There were several reasons for this decline. According to historian Jacques Rouillard, the emergence of a leisure and consumer society meant that people were more likely to leave town or relax with family than attend a parade. Participation decreased further due to changes in the world of trade unions.
Craft unions had traditionally organized Labour Day events. But the rise of industrial unionism, representing unskilled and semi-skilled workers, changed the day’s impact and meaning. Not everyone identified with the traditional “pride in the trade” message repeated during the celebrations. Furthermore, the Cold War divided organized labour into various rival factions. This made organizing festivities more difficult.
Competing events also took participants away from Labour Day festivities. Socialists, communists and Marxists celebrated May Day, or International Workers’ Day on May 1. Over time, this holiday acquired a more militant character than Labour Day. Many unions chose to hold their parade on that day instead. Similarly, in the mid-1970s, International Women’s Day on March 8 became an alternative celebration for feminist unionism.
In a time when workers’ rights are taken for granted and even workers’ benefits have come to be expected, it’s no wonder that the origins of Labour Day are confined to the history books. What evolved into just another summer holiday began as a working-class struggle and massive demonstration of solidarity in the streets of Toronto.
Over time, Labour Day strayed from its origins and evolved into a popular celebration enjoyed by the masses. It became viewed as the last celebration of summer, a time for picnics, barbecues, and shopping.
But wherever and whenever it is celebrated, its purpose remains the same, to affirm the dignity and honour of working people everywhere.
No matter where you find yourself this Labour Day, take a minute to think about Canada’s labour pioneers. Their actions laid the foundations for future labour movements and helped workers secure the rights and benefits enjoyed today.
Sources: Origins of Labour Day by James H. Marsh and Paul Bishop; A short history of Labour Day in Canada by Marc-Andre Gagnon - The Canadian Encyclopedia; Labour Day in Canada by Marc-André Gagnon and Nathan Baker; Canadian Public Holidays by Craig Heron and Steven Penfold; Photos From Provincial and National Archives
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.