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Why Labour Day?

Imagine being labeled a criminal for not working a twelve-hour day. To be placed in jail for protesting against dangerous working conditions. This was the reality of a Canadian worker less than a century and a half ago. Celebrating Labour Day helps us remember the progress that has been made for the worker’s rights that we continue to enjoy today.

So where did the holiday we know as Labour Day begin?

1869 – The coffee breaks aren’t cutting it

In 1869 a group called the Toronto Typographical Union dared to request a reduction in hours from their usual 72 hour week. Such a request at the time was viewed both as absurd and conspiratory. The request was quickly and outright refused by the owners of the print shops and by George Brown, a politician and editor of the Toronto Globe.

1872 – “Nine Hour Movement”

By 1872, the request for a shorter work week had grown into a cause called the “Nine-Hour Movement”. In the face of continued rejection, the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike on March 25, 1872 and on April 14 a parade was organized by the workers to protest. They were met with such overwhelming support, that what started as two thousand workers marching, quickly swelled to over ten thousand people joining the march before it concluded.

At this time in Canadian history, union activity, including strikes, were illegal. George Brown took action against the striking workers by having them arrested and jailed for conspiracy. Much of the Canadian populous was stunned at the existence of the anti-union laws, which were originally created back in 1792 to protect trade.

The arrests were protested by Canadians so strongly that the Prime Minister at the time, Sir John A. Macdonald used the united worker support to repeal the anti-union laws. On June 14, 1872 The Trade Unions Act is passed effectively legalizing unions.

After 1872 – Short term pain, long term gain

Due to the strike, many of the arrested workers ended up losing their jobs and were forced to leave the city. However due to their bravery and with the new Trade Unions Act, all unions thereafter demanded a shorter work week. The support of the Nine-Hour Movement and the printer’s strike continued thereafter in the form of an annual celebration and parade.

1882 – American “labour day”

In 1882, Peter McGuire, an American Labour Leader, attended the annual labour festival in Toronto. He returned to American and began America’s first Labour Day on September 5.

1894 – The first Canadian Labour Day

Due to mounting public pressure, on July 23, 1894, Prime Minister Sir John Thompson passed a law making Labour Day an official national holiday. A five kilometer Labour Day parade stretched through the city of Winnipeg that year, as did the tradition of Labour Day spread across Canada.