Labour Day, the first Monday in September, has been a statutory holiday in Canada since 1894. It marks the unofficial end of summertime fun and a day when thousands of people gather across British Columbia for their final big barbecue festivities.  Labour Day has evolved into a holiday about relaxing with friends and family, and that has led to the origins of Labour Day getting somewhat lost in celebratory events devoted to leisure activity and family time.


It is important to remember that the origins of Labour Day are traced back to April 15, 1872, when the Toronto Trades Assembly organized Canada's first significant demonstration for worker rights.


The Toronto’s Printer’s Strike was part of the Nine-Hour movement. The Nine-Hour movement was an international worker’s movement striving for shorter workdays in the 1870s.


In January 1872 in Hamilton, Ontario, railroad workers as well as other craft workers formed Nine Hour Leagues.  Nine hours was normally a reduction of two to three hours off a regular shift. The workers explained that society as a whole would benefit from shorter workdays because individuals would have more time for family and community.


From Hamilton, the movement spread to other parts of Canada, notably Toronto, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. The movement gained support from smaller Ontario towns as well including Sarnia and Perth, and from regions as far east as Halifax, Nova Scotia. This came to be known as Canada’s first mass worker’s movement.


Toronto is important to the Nine-Hour movement because it was there that words were transformed into action. The demands that had started in Hamilton, Ontario were taken up by the Toronto Typographical Union. When these demands were not met the printers threatened to strike. The employers stated that the demands of the union were “foolish.”


On 15 April 1872 the printers led an infamous parade through Toronto, starting at the Trades Assembly Hall on King Street, marching down Yonge to College and finishing at Queen’s Park. The parade included marching bands and signs proclaiming the demands of the printers. The group started the march with 2000 individuals and by the time they had made in to Queen’s Park the crowd (made up mostly of working-class individuals) had grown to around 10,000. At the time, the population of Toronto was 100,000.


One day after the parade to Queen’s Park, police arrested the 24 members of the strike committee and threw them in jail. Those arrested included John Hewitt and John Armstrong, leader of the Toronto Typographical Union. At this time, trade unions were still illegal and striking was seen as a criminal conspiracy to disrupt trade.


There was enormous public support for the parade and the authorities could no longer deny the important role that the trade unions had to play in the emerging Canadian society. A few months later, a similar parade was organized in Ottawa and passed the house of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John Macdonald. Later in the day, he appeared before the gathering and promised to repeal all Canadian laws against trade unions. This happened in the same year and eventually led to the founding of the Canadian Labour Congress in 1883.


The Printer’s Strike did not lead to nine-hour workdays. In the short-term the strike was damaging to the strikers. Many lost their jobs and had to leave Toronto to find work elsewhere.


The strike also led to many positive outcomes. Unions were legalized and the public showed that they were interested in their own affairs.  After the strike of 1872 almost, all unions began to demand 54-hour weeks for their workers. The printers of Toronto were indeed pioneers in the struggle for shorter workweeks.


Parades held in celebration of the union workers became an annual event. In British Columbia the first Labour Day parade in Vancouver was held in 1890, four years after the city’s birth, less than one year after the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council was formed, and four years before the statutory holiday was declared. Floats showing off the skills of the craft unions and marchers were led by the president of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council to Stanley Park where speakers urged workers “to bring about the time when each man shall enjoy the just rewards of his labour.” A tug-of-war competition was won by the longshoremen’s team, and the prize of $10, perhaps two or three days’ pay for a union craftsman, was to be sent to striking miners on Vancouver Island. Vancouver’s first Labour Day was a celebration of workers by workers to develop solidarity and working-class consciousness.


Labour Day continues as a day to highlight the achievements of workers, both from a social and an economic perspective.  We must remember that Labour Day is not only a time to enjoy the last long weekend with family and friends, but it’s also an important opportunity to reflect upon the achievements of union members to build a country where our hard work is respected and valued. Everything from paid vacations, sick leave, an eight-hour work day, and weekends to pensions, health and safety and fair wages, everything we rightfully expect today was once just a dream.


We must never forget that these basic rights, including the right to form a union and collectively bargain, weren’t just given to us. People fought for them, people bled for them, and sometimes, people even died for them. Labour Day is really about the people fighting to achieve and maintain those rights. It’s our job to carry forward the vision and legacy of the labour movement for the next generation of workers.


This Labour Day, consider participating in your local Labour Council Labour Day event (probably on Zoom) to remember and honour all of the unions and other workers’ groups who did so much for working people. If you can’t do that, take a moment of silence to thank those who fought for the rights you enjoy and probably take for granted.


The fight for fairness and respect isn’t over. The fight continues today and will continue tomorrow and the day after. It will never be over. The history of the labour movement is also far from over. The labour movement and its ongoing history have become more important than ever.



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