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Labour Day: Another Canadian first

Most Canadians think of Labour Day as the last long weekend opportunity of the summer, a chance for a final swim in the lake or a family picnic.

Some of us who consider ourselves political sophisticates may know that the holiday honoring working people was viewed during the Cold War as a more sanitized and less radical alternative to the socialist celebrations on May 1. What few know is that the Labour Day tradition actually first emerged in Canada.

In 1872 in Toronto, at a time when trade unions were still illegal under Canadian law, the city was convulsed with disputes led by the printers' union demanding a shorter work week. As other workers supported the printers, a march numbering 10,000 participants (one-tenth of the city's population) snaked through the city on April 14 to Queens Park.

Some authorities consider this April march the first Labour Day in history. In a move unimaginable today, the Conservative government of John A. McDonald, who himself spoke at a militant workers' rally in Ottawa in September of that year, responded by repealing the law that criminalized trade unions.

In 1882, the Toronto Trades and Labour Council called for annual workers' celebrations, and invited Peter J. McGuire of the U.S. United Brotherhood of Carpenters (and one of the founding leaders of the American Federation of Labour) to speak. McGuire, who issued an appeal for an American labour holiday later that year, is sometimes credited as the inventor of Labour Day, but he clearly took his lead from the earlier Canadian example.

Labour Day was established as a national holiday in both the U.S. and Canada in 1894. (Again, perhaps ironically, the Canadian holiday was established by the Conservatives, led then by Sir John Thompson. That year the crowd at a Labour Day march in Winnipeg stretched over two miles.

National labour holidays are currently celebrated around the world at different dates in Australia, Cuba, India, Jamaica, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Sweden, Russia and other former Soviet republics, and Trinidad and Tobago as well as in Canada and the U.S.

In Vancouver, the B.C. Federation of Labour is sponsoring a Labour Day picnic at Trout Lake on the city's east side from 11:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. September 3. The event will feature live music, speeches and affordable hot dogs. A listing of Labour Day events across the province is available here.

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at

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