The marshals had their hands full pulling together the three thousand workers who converged on Market Square in London, Ontario on 3 September 1894. It was the first nationally recognized Labour Day in Canada, and the local labour movement was out in force. Eventually, the first union contingent headed off down the city’s main streets in the blazing noonday sun. Leading the way was a group of 75 butchers on horseback, who set the tone of respectable craftsmanship with their crisply white shirts and hats and clean baskets on their arms.
From The Worker’s Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada, written by Craig Heron and Steven Penfold, published 2005.
Labour Day in Canada is celebrated on the first Monday in September with a national holiday and a parade by mostly unionized workers. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the celebration of Labour Day in Canada came as a result of a group of unionized workers (Toronto Printers Union) demanding the right to work less than 12 hours a day. Apparently this alarmed their bosses who were horrified that their workers wanted to work a mere nine hours a day.
The workers had petitioned their employers in 1869 asking for a reduction of their daily work hours. By 1872 the workers were demanding a nine hour work day. The supporters of what became known as the “Nine Hour Movement” went on strike (March 25, 1872) and George Brown, owner of the Globe newspaper (forerunner of today’s Globe and Mail) not only brought in replacement workers but he also sued the Toronto Printers Union.
According to the law in Canada at that time (1872), a law which dated back to 1792, union activity was considered a criminal offence. The 24 members of the strike committee were arrested and jailed. On April 14, 1872, a demonstration was held to show solidarity with a parade of approximately 2,000 workers marching through the city, led by two marching bands. A supportive crowd swelled the number to 10,000 by the time the parade reached its destination at Queen’s Park.
The struggle of the workers caught the sympathetic attention of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and on June 14, 1872, his government passed a Trade Union Act, which legalized and protected union activity. The parades held in support of the Nine-Hour Movement and the printers’ strike led to an annual celebration and on July 23, 1894, the government of Prime Minister Sir John Thompson passed a law making Labour Day a national holiday.
Although this history of Labour Day refers to the struggle of “workers”, the labour movement was not diverse or inclusive. In The Worker’s Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada, Craig Heron and Steven Penfold write: “By the early 1900s, the absence of the less skilled and non-union workers meant that Labour Day parades consisted preponderantly of White anglophones and francophones. There was rarely any space for Africans and native Canadians or for the newcomers from Asia and southern and eastern Europe who increasingly filled the jobs at the bottom of the occupational ladder and were rarely unionized before the First World War.”
Racialized people had been a part of Canada’s labour force for centuries, including the contribution of native Canadians to the fur trade which enriched European traders; enslaved Africans who laboured without pay (1628-1834) and the Chinese who built the railroad with massive loss of life. Yet, as Heron and Penfold have documented, there was blatantly racist exclusion of these workers from the celebration of Labour Day in those early days.
Thankfully, the Labour Day parade has come a long way since the days that Heron and Penfold describe: “On the few occasions when people of colour appeared in these marches they were presented as curiosities not fellow workers. Plumbers’ unions sometimes used Black youngsters as comic accents to the gleaming white-enamel fixtures on their float. In one case in Toronto, the tableau was an older woman trying to scrub the ‘dirt’ off a Black boy.”
Sadly, even though we have come a long way since African-Canadians were considered “curiosities” and used as “comic accents” in Labour Day parades we still have a long way to go to see racialized people in leadership positions in the Labour movement. A look at the leadership of the Labour movement will quickly show that the diversity of the workers who attend the Labour Day parade on September 6, 2010 is not reflected; it is still overwhelmingly White and male.
It is therefore hardly surprising that we are not hearing voices from the leadership of the Canadian labour movement raised against the Canadian government’s attack on employment equity.