The surprising history of Labour Day (that started in Canada!)

National Holiday Photo by Shutterstock/Scott Heaney

Few of us are willing to accept it, but Labour Day signals the unofficial end of summer. School starts, plans pick up, and that fall chill creeps into the night air. That’s why many of us treat Labour Day as the last chance to squeeze in a cottage long weekend. The final time to strap on the waterskis, go for an afternoon dip, or just relax and soak up some summer rays.

But despite offering Canadians a much-needed day off, Labour Day’s origins are far from peaceful. The international holiday’s inception can be traced back to a tumultuous time in 19th century Canada when labourers were fighting for fair working conditions.

What does it celebrate?

Despite the name, Labour Day isn’t a signal to get back to work. Rather it’s a day to celebrate the achievements of the labour movement, specifically the rise of unions, fair pay, and reasonable working hours. The day is a statutory national holiday celebrated across Canada and the U.S. on the first Monday of September.

How did Labour Day start?

The first rumblings of Labour Day started in 1872 with the Nine Hour Movement. This was an international movement where labourers were advocating for shorter working hours. At the time, workers routinely logged 12-hour shifts six days per week. Plus, industrialization was revolutionizing the workforce with labourers being replaced by machines and offered no employment protection.

The first outcry over conditions started in Hamilton, Ont., but quickly spread to nearby Toronto. Members of the Toronto Typographical Union (TTU) walked out of work on March 25, 1872 after the city’s publishers refused their demands for a nine-hour workday. Three weeks later, J.S. Williams, a leading member of the TTU, organized a march on Queen’s Park to lobby the province’s politicians for shorter working hours. Ten thousand workers—a tenth of the city’s population—showed up, putting pressure on employers. The event sparked protest movements in other cities, with Ottawa organizing a march that stretched a mile long.

In response, George Brown, the publisher of the Toronto Globe and a prominent Liberal, brought in scabs from nearby towns and had police charge and arrest strike leaders for criminal conspiracy—unions were illegal in Canada at the time.

Conservative Prime Minister John A. Macdonald took note of the protests. With an upcoming election, Macdonald saw an opportunity to embarrass his Liberal counterparts and seize the labourers’ votes. Macdonald released the imprisoned strikers and passed the Trade Union Act, decriminalizing unions.

But the labourers still didn’t receive shorter workdays. In response, workers across Canada held annual parades in support of labour rights. Parades were held in Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Oshawa, Montreal, St. Catharines, Halifax, Vancouver, and London.

Having attended a parade in Toronto in 1882, Peter McGuire, the founder of the carpenters’ union and the American Federation of Labor, returned to the U.S. and organized a parade in New York City. In 1894, under mounting pressure from the unions, U.S. President Grover Cleveland declared the first Monday of September a national holiday. Canadian Prime Minister John Thompson followed suit the same year, declaring the holiday Labour Day.

How is it celebrated?

Traditionally, Labour Day was celebrated by workers marching in a parade. The parades ended with speeches, picnics, and games, such as footraces and lacrosse matches. These parades waned in popularity in the 1950s. The rise of consumerism saw people less interested in the politics of labour, instead wanting to spend the day outside the city with family and friends.

The parades also had a tendency of excluding women, Indigenous peoples, and other racialized communities. This—along with politics—splintered some of the unions. In the mid-1970s, International Women’s Day was recognized on March 8, drawing female labourers. And socialists, communists, and Marxists celebrated International Workers’ Day on May 1, making it harder to draw a crowd to Labour Day parades.

Today, the parades still happen, but Labour Day’s emphasis has shifted towards rest and relaxation.

Is Labour Day celebrated in other countries?

Despite being an international holiday, Canada and the U.S. are two of the only countries that celebrate Labour Day in September. Of the 160 countries that celebrate the holiday, the majority do so at the beginning of May. Ironically, this is because of an event that happened in the U.S.

In May of 1886, 400,000 workers across the U.S. went on strike demanding an eight-hour workday. The protest started peacefully, but in Chicago, police were called in to manage the protestors. The event turned violent when police shot and killed several unarmed protestors. A bomb was also lobbed into the fray, killing seven police officers and four protestors. The event was known as the Haymarket Riot.

In the aftermath of the protest, eight of the strike leaders were arrested with seven sentenced to death and one sentenced to 15 years in prison. Workers around the world read about the events and held protests in support of the labourers. In 1889, an international federation of socialist groups declared May 1 International Workers’ Day, or May Day, in commemoration of the Chicago protest. The Soviet Union embraced the holiday, believing it would convince workers around the world to reject capitalism.

Not happy with the communist sympathy the protestors were receiving, the U.S. government distanced itself from the Haymarket Riots. That’s why when President Cleveland decreed Labour Day a national holiday, he chose to have it in September rather than May. Canada followed the U.S.’ lead also celebrating its Labour Day in September.

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