A Brief History of Labour Day

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It’s Labour Day today, which means you’ve got the day off! But have you ever wondered why? In this article we take a quick look at the history of this public holiday.

Origins

These days most people work forty hours per week, but some have suggested shortening that to just thirty hours post pandemic—and this poll from Angus Reid suggests that about half of Canadians would support the idea.

However, it wasn’t so long ago that a forty hour work week was the hope and dream of labourers across the country. Because before the 1950s, the standard for most Canadian workers was ten hour days and fifty hour work weeks.

If we go all the way back to the beginnings of the labour movement during the industrial revolution, a twelve hour day was standard; and it is this era which gave birth to labour unions and strikes.

Workers were often prosecuted for criminal activity when they tried to organize trade unions, and when people went on strike, there were plenty of other workers with families to feed ready to take their place. Rather than give in to a union’s demands, employers would just hire all new staff, which made it difficult for change to take place.

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Rights for Workers

In 1872, things started to change when trade unions were legalized by Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald. Workers could now organize, but strikes were still discouraged by the government. In 1919 during the Winnipeg General Strike, North-West Mounted Police officers fired shots into a crowd gathered in support of fair wages for workers recently returned from the Great War.

In 1940, the next big change in workers rights came about following the Great Depression: Prime Minister Mackenzie-King introduced unemployment insurance for the first time.

Labour Day

Canadians likely first started celebrating Labour Day (unofficially) in 1872 to celebrate the success of the nine hour movement in Toronto and winning the right to organize freely from the federal government. Over time, many towns across the country began having parades, and Montreal declared Labour Day a civic holiday in 1889.

Labour organizations started pressuring the federal government for an official holiday to recognize the achievements of workers, and finally in 1894, we got the statutory holiday we know today which takes place on the first Monday in September.

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