Friday, September 4, 2015

The Labour Day Tradition in Canada

     Labour Day is a milestone in Canadian life.[1]  For many in Canada, true summer begins early on the Victoria Day long weekend in May, and ends on the Labour Day weekend.  Like the USA, Canada celebrates Labour Day on the 1st Monday in September.  Though the holiday is widespread, many other countries celebrate it at different times, most frequently on May 1. 

     For many Canadians, Labour Day is the end of holidays and one last chance for a swim at the lake, to enjoy a family BBQ in the waning summer sun, or to watch one of Canadian footballs' classic regional rivalries, see here. For me, as a suburban Toronto kid, the holiday weekend often meant going to the carnival, agricultural fair and international air show held at the Canadian National Exhibition, see here.

     In 2015, Labour Day also marks the midway point of Canada's 42nd National Election, see my previous post on holidays and elections, here .  Of course, Labour Day has always been closely connected to both politics and law in Canada.  

     Given the antipathy of many modern conservatives towards labour unions, some might be surprised to hear that it was Tory Prime Minister John Thompson who declared the day a National Holiday in 1894.  However, the close connection between organized labour and Conservatives also extends back, at least, to Canada's 1st PM, Conservative John A. Macdonald.[2]

     In 1872, Macdonald's chief political rival was leading anti-union efforts to repress a printer’s strike that was hurting his own newspaper business.  With an election in the offing, Macdonald came out in support of the unions, whose leaders had been jailed under Canada's antiquated criminal laws.

      Macdonald saw his chance to gain "a little cheap political capital",[3] and promptly passed the Trade Union Act in June 1872.[4]  For the 1st time in Canadian history, participation in a labour union was no longer a criminal act. PM Macdonald cheerfully declared to crowds that "as a maker of cabinets, he was himself an industrial worker", and consequently won broad labour support.[5]

     Of course, the origins of Labour Day are only one part of a long story that stretches to the present day.  Like millions of other Canadians on the long weekend, I will probably enjoy a little family time, watch for the 1st signs that the leaves have started to turn their Fall colours, and enjoy the last of the good weather. But I will also give a thought to the many who laboured over decades, to improve working conditions, and helped to build modern Canada.

[1] For example, see Joanna Dawson, “The First Labour Day” Canada’s History,, retrieved September 4, 2015,
[2] See Mark Chartrand, “The First Canadian Trade Union Legislation: An Historical Perspective” (1984) Ottawa LR 16 267.
[3] See Richard Gwyn, Nation Maker Sir John A Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, (Toronto: Random House, 2011) at 196, quoting Macdonald's political rival ,George Brown.
[4] 35 Vict, c. 30.  Also see An Act to amend Criminal Law relative to Violence, Threats and Molestation, 35 Vict, c 31.
[5] Supra note 3.

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