On April 15 of 1872 a massive working class demonstration of 2,000 workers from 27 unions made its way down the streets of Toronto in support of the printers’ strike for a shorter work day. By the time the street procession reached Queen’s Park, they had been joined by a sympathetic crowd of about 10,000 (almost a tenth of the city’s population at the time). The following month railroad workers and other craft workers in Hamilton, birthplace of the Nine-Hour Movement, held a similarly celebrated strike parade “with dramatic, colourful craft and industrial displays.” While these and other strikes that year by Nine-Hour Leagues in cities and towns across Ontario and Quebec were not successful in their immediate goal of a shorter working week, the unified labour protest did achieve some gains including a repeal of outdated British law under which Canadian unions could be declared illegal – and reinvigorated interest in the workers’ movement and united action to claim and protect their rights.
In the following decade annual labour processions (worker festivals) celebrating workers’ rights took hold, reflecting each community’s local industrial, cultural mix and artistry. As pressure from the working class mounted, in 1894 the Prime Minister passed legislation that declared the first Monday in September as Labour Day, a national public holiday (the only recommendation adopted from the many issued by the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital to improve working conditions and safety).
On Monday participants in Labour Day will once again demonstrate the contribution workers make to the well-being of Canada, highlight the need for united vigilance to prevent the erosion of workers’ rights, and address issues of social justice. The Toronto & York Region Labour Council’s Parade theme for this year “Step Up and Speak Out” reflects the common call for strong laws that protect workers’ rights to fair wages, benefits and a union voice at work, focusing also on the role of labour in challenging racism and discrimination. Still the workers’ festival, the day will also be marked by workers and their families with fun, music and celebration at fairgrounds or picnic sites around Ontario.
As they do every year, injured workers will also be participating in Labour Day parades in Toronto and across the province – this year ahead of the September 11 launch of the Workers’ Comp is a Right Campaign.
- Canadian Labour Congress. Labour Day Events 2017: Ontario Region
- Toronto Workers History Project. Upcoming 2017 Sep. 12. Hear keynote speaker, Craig Heron, on The History of Labour Day [details]
- Marsh, James H, rev. by Paul Bishop. 2016 Feb. 22. “Origins of Labour Day.” The Canadian Encyclopedia
- Heron, Craig & Steve Penfold. 1996. “The Craftmen’s Spectacle: Labour Day Parades in Canada, The Early Years.” Histoire sociale/Social History 29(58): 357-389
- Labouring All Our Lives. Celebrating Labour Day in Guelph (1902-1913)