Origins of Labour Day rooted in a workers’ strike

labor day 

Though many Canadians now see Labour Day as little more than a summer holiday, its origins trace back to a significant time in Canadian history. By the second half of the 19th century, Canadian cities were experiencing an influx of immigrants that caused populations to grow considerably.

This coincided with a changing workplace that was relying more and more on machines, putting workers in an unenviable position. Workers’ once-special skills were now being handled by machines, leaving the working class with little leverage and no recourse to protest low wages, long hours or poor working conditions. Workers who made such protestations were easily replaced, so many simply accepted what their employers had to offer, regardless of how poor that offer was.

Such was the reality in Toronto in 1872, when the Toronto Printers Union began to lobby its employers for a shorter work week. When their demands were ignored, workers went on strike in late March. The strike proved a blow to Toronto’s publishing industry, which had to sit by and watch as a group of 2,000 workers marched through the streets of Toronto in mid-April. As the protesters marched, they garnered more and more support, and eventually the crowd of marchers had expanded to 10,000, or 10 percent of the city’s population.

Though the published industry might have been dealt a significant blow, the response from industry leaders, including Toronto Globe founder George Brown, was less than pleasant. Legal action was taken against the leaders of the strike, and replacement workers from neighbouring towns were brought in. But Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, a political adversary of Brown’s, supported the workers, eventually passing the Trade Union Act that decriminalized unions and led to the strike leaders’ release from jail.

Despite support from the Prime Minister, many workers still lost their jobs, and the goal of a shorter work week was not immediately achieved. But the strike was a significant moment in Canadian history, showing workers they were not powerless. In addition, an annual parade was held in honour of the workers who went on strike, and this celebration soon spread to cities throughout Canada. By 1894, these parades were officially recognized when then-Prime Minister Sir John Thompson declared Labour Day a national holiday.

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