Labour Day: What is it & why do we celebrate it?

I have to admit I had no idea what the historical purpose of labour day was until I looked it up. Then decided to write a brief article on it, to share with you the reason we originally got this long weekend that we Canadians use as the marker for the end of another summer.

Labour Day occurs each year on the first Monday in September and has since it was established as a statutory holiday in Canada in 1894. The origin of the holiday lies in the first workers’ rallies of the Victorian era, with festivities being held in connection with larger labour movements. Labour organizations began holding these celebrations more frequently following a labour convention in New York in 1882 and motivated by this success, the American Federation of Labour in the United States and the Knights of Labour in Canada, actively promoted workers’ celebrations on the first Monday in September in both the U.S. and Canada. Records from the Canadian Encyclopedia show that similar gatherings were held in Toronto (1882), Hamilton (1883), Oshawa (1883), Montreal (1886), St. Catherines (1887), Halifax (1888), Ottawa (1890), Vancouver (1890), and London (1892).

Eventually, as the event grew more popular across the continent, labour organizations pressured governments to declare the day a statutory holiday. Their pleas were heard and the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital in Canada recommended the federal government establish the day. This was significant as previous support had been sparse, with only a few municipalities choosing to declare it for themselves. Then, in early 1894, more than 50 labour organizations from Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Manitoba, and British Columbia petitioned parliament. They were successful, having a bill sponsored by Prime Minister John Thompson, and received royal assent on July 23rd, 1894. As well, the United States federal government chose to recognize the holiday that same year.

It wasn’t until 1899 that the provinces granted the holiday legal status, requiring school boards to delay the start of classes until after the first Monday in September. Until the 1950s, Labour Day festivities were marked by large parades in major cities across the country. However, in the 1950s, Labour Day celebrations began drawing in fewer and fewer participants, causing organizers to try and revamp the holiday. For instance, in Montreal, organizers tried to replace the parade with performances and ceremonies. Unfortunately, these attempts were unsuccessful, with participation continuing to decrease as changes occurred surrounding the structure of trade unions. While craft unions traditionally organized official Labour Day events, the rise of industrial unionism changed the day’s impact and meaning. Additionally, the Cold War ended up dividing organized labour into a number of factions; overall, this made the organization of festivities more difficult.

Today, formal celebrations do continue to take place, with small parades being held in cities such as Toronto and Ottawa, but overall, Labour Day has become less of a celebration of labourers, and more of a last hurrah. The cities empty, with many electing to spend the last long weekend of the summer at cottages and taking last-minute trips. The Labour Day long weekend has become a marker for the end of the summer, making it widely known and celebrated, but not necessarily for the original reasons why the holiday was created.

Have yourself a happy Labour Day!

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