The great continuing mystery of Labour Day

Written by David Frank on September 4, 2015

Saint John Typographical Union Labour Day 1894

A sketch of the Saint John Typographical Union float in the 1894 Labour Day parade. On a small portable press, the printers were producing copies of a Labour Day Souvenir for distribution to the crowd. For local labour historian George Vair’s discussion of the history of Labour Day in Saint John, NB, visit the website for the Frank and Ella Hatheway Labour Exhibit Centre:

It comes around every year, but it seems that fewer and fewer Canadians know why. It’s a long weekend at the end of summer, and we happily accept it as an extra day to prepare for the changes that come with the start of the fall season.

Labour Day has been with us since 1894, enacted by the Conservative government of the time to recognize the place of workers in the Canadian march of progress. Mainly a symbolic gesture, it was the only recommendation of a royal commission on working conditions that the federal government implemented. Things such as union recognition, workers’ compensation, minimum wages and paid holidays had to wait a lot longer.

Still, Labour Day has become an accepted part of our annual calendar, and there is not much chance anybody will try to do away with it.

Even for today’s revisionists who have been redefining the country in the image of the Stephen Harper Conservative government, there is no avoiding Labour Day. The Canadian Citizenship Study Guide that introduces immigrants to the Canadian way of life is still obliged to include Labour Day in the list of statutory public holidays.

But there is not much else to be learned about workers or unions in that more or less official version of the Canadian story. Certain words are mentioned a lot: war is popular (55 references). Women are mentioned much less often (13 times, 7 of them in one paragraph on winning the right to vote).

Workers are named only twice, both times in connection with the Chinese labourers who worked on construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. They were among our first Temporary Foreign Workers and were rewarded first with the head tax and then the Chinese Exclusion Act – by a country they were good enough to build but not good enough to live in.

Unions themselves are never discussed in the Guide, except in sample questions, such as one about the responsibilities of citizenship. “Obeying the law” is one of the “right” answers, and “belonging to a union” is one of the “wrong” answers. We are not told what unions are, but they seem to be disreputable.

Despite all this, there is an instructive mystery at the centre of the Guide, and it is worth quoting: “In 1951, for the first time, a majority of Canadians were able to afford adequate food, shelter and clothing”. That is, until more than 60 years ago, most Canadians could not afford “adequate food, shelter and clothing”.

But if the “bad old days” became less bad for many Canadians somewhere around 1951, the Guide gives us little explanation why.

There are actually good reasons to say 1951. In the previous ten years Canada produced a belated response to the Great Depression by enacting major social legislation, such as unemployment insurance, family allowances and universal old age pensions.

Also, in the same ten years union membership tripled, coming to represent more than one-third of the work force. As governments endorsed collective bargaining and employers signed contracts, living standards improved and more of the national income started going to ordinary Canadians.

In short, it was hardly an accident that the wealth of the country increased over time, or that some part of it was redistributed in the interests of social and economic democracy, a trend that continued at least until 1975.

Unions have been a big part of what is often called the Canadian success story, securing benefits for millions of members and helping to raise standards for all Canadians. They also work to defend those standards. And they try to extend them, which means they must engage in a continual process of renewal to bring in support from new kinds of workers in new kinds of workplaces and to tell their story to all Canadians.

Indeed, unions are often described as “the folks who brought us the weekend.” On this particular long weekend we might take a few minutes to think about that. Even as workers and unions struggle to make themselves heard in the public discourse of our times, Labour Day survives, and it belongs to all of us.

David Frank is the author of Provincial Solidarities: A History of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour. An earlier version of this commentary was published in the Ottawa Citizen.

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