||Labour Day Parade in Toronto in the early 1900s
||1949 Labour Day Parade, Halifax
||Carpenters' Union- National Library of Canada
The holiday Canada gave the
Welcome to Labour Day, the holiday that is now so much a part
of our culture that Canadians rarely pause to consider its true purpose
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
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.'
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
The event took on a life of its own and was one that authorities could
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 the 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 "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.
Toronto Trades Assembly and Toronto Trades and Labour Council