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Labour Day in Canada about more than just a day off – it’s workers’ rights

While many focus on using the day for leisure time, it once had a more significant role
Union members and activist take part in the Labour Day Parade in Toronto, on Sept. 5, 2022. A record labour shortage and rising wages may seem like good news for workers, but labour leaders say workers aren’t seeing the gains that corporations are experiencing amidst sky-high inflation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin

The first Monday in September marks Labour Day.

While most people know it as a welcome chance for a day off, the day used to hold a lot more significance in society and played an important role in shaping the quality of workers’ lives today.

A statutory holiday in Canada since 1894, Labour Day originated in the first workers’ rallies of the Victorian era and originally gave workers the chance to campaign for better working conditions or pay.

The origin of Labour Day is actually traced by some historians to the Nine Hour Movement (1872), which aimed to standardize shorter working days (from 12 hours to nine). Though the goal was not achieved, the movement set a precedent for the Canadian Labor Union, a short-lived (1872-1878) national central organization, and paved the way for greater achievements.

The Trades and Labour Congress of Canada was formed later on in 1886, using lobbying to secure wage and protective legislation, workmen’s compensation, sanitary regulation of workshops, and the eight-hour day. The organization also aided in the Liberal Party’s creation of the federal Department of Labour in 1900.

Considering the large amount of those who worked in the skilled crafts during Labour Day’s beginnings (those in the skilled crafts originally formed labour unions that organized Labour Day events), historically, Labour Day was a larger community celebration of working-class solidarity with parades, speeches, games and picnics.

However, historian Jacques Rouillard speculates that following the Second World War, the emergence of a leisure and consumer society began to shift people’s priorities. They were less likely to attend a parade and more likely to go on a vacation or relax. The world of trade unions also began to change; the rise of industrial unionism began to alter the day’s impact and meaning – the “pride in the trade” message repeated during celebrations didn’t ring as true anymore.

There also emerged a number of holidays with somewhat similar sentiments, specifically May Day, aka International Workers’ Day (May 1) and International Women’s Day (Mar. 8) which celebrates feminist unionism.

Labour Day activities have become less and less common since the Second World War, but many Canadians continue to devote the holiday to leisure and family time.

Despite the changes that have occurred to Labour Day, the Canadian Labour Congress still represents 3.2 million unionized workers across Canada, and the protection of workers’ rights and needs remains a cause for celebration.

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