Labour Day has been marked as a statutory public holiday in Canada on the first Monday in September since 1894. However, the origins of Labour Day in Canada can be traced back to numerous local demonstrations and celebrations in earlier decades.
In 1889, the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital in Canada recommended recognition of an official “Labour Day” by the Federal government and, in March and April, 1894 unions lobbied Parliament to recognize Labour Day as a public holiday. Legislation was introduced in May by then Prime Minister Sir John Thompson and received royal assent in July 1894.
Since then, Labour Day has been a day of formal recognition for the labour movement and a day of rest and recreation for all workers. While Labour Day parades and picnics are organized by unions, many Canadians regard Labour Day as the Monday of the last long weekend of summer.
In normal, pre-pandemic times, today September 6th, would be celebrated in Port Elgin (Saugeen Shores) with a parade organized by the Grey Bruce Labour Council and UNIFOR, a classic car show and BBQ for the public at the UNIFOR Family Education Centre. Due to COVID however, this year’s celebration was a muted affair held in Owen Sound on Sunday, September 5th. Despite the pared-down celebration, several topics that involve direct action and support by unions were covered.
Kevin Smith, President of the Grey Bruce Labour Council (GBLC) said on Sunday that everyone needs to focus on equality and an equitable economy. “We are in an election and whatever part forms the new government had better be prepared to listen to us all. Recovery from this pandemic will be because of the workers and the labour movement and years from now, we will look back and see that a successful recovery was because of us. The pandemic is likely to take its toll on many but we are here now to celebrate the work that has been done and the work that we do that makes a difference in everyones’ lives.”
Theresa O’Connor, a retiree from Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) brought greetings on behalf of Indigenous peoples. O’Connor’s mother was Metis from Mattawa-Nippissing and her father was First Nation from Manitoulin Island. “We are on the shores of Lake Huron and the waters are very important. Peoples from Neyaashiinigmiing (Cape Croker) and Saugeen First nation gather together with peoples from other areas to ‘walk and pray for the waters’. As we know, there were many children who never came home from residential schools and last week we held a ceremony to create awareness around the issue of addiction and opioid overdose. Labour can be very proud that it has stood alongside Indigenous peoples and has supported us. During the past year, there was a huge outbreak at Saugeen and, when that happened, UNIFOR stepped up in a good way and provided a huge donation that was very helpful. I reached out to other unions but did not get the same response.”
O’Connor added that, when it comes to truth and reconciliation, it’s not just about wearing an orange shirt and saying the words, it’s about actions. “There are things you can do and, if you want to know what they are, just reach out and ask someone. There is a new Friendship Centre here that welcomes all peoples not just First Nations, Metis or Inuit. Everyone is welcome to ceremonies and to hear the teachings”.
She said that the way out of the crisis of the 1960s ‘children’s scoop’ is through education and healing. “I believe that unions have a significant role to play. When I was with OPSEU, I provided education to members … that is what Senator Murray Sinclair said, ‘it is education that brought us here and it will be education that gets us out’.”
Chris Stephen, Labour Council VP Grey County, said that Labour Day is to celebrate the valuable contributions to society that labour has made. “Those before us fought for many great things and won – vacation pay, weekends, health and safety, civil rights and equality and all the things that we have today. We have so much more because of them. The misconception is that they did it just for union workers and that’s a myth. They did it for all workers. Today, we will keep fighting to improve conditions in the workplace for all. From raising minimum wage to continuing to improve health and safety, we strive to see fair workplaces for all workers. We have picked up the torch and lead the charge for a better future for all. Over the past few years, we have seen the value of labour. My biggest pet peeve is the vilification of unions. Why attack something that has and does so much good? We strive to make the world a better place. Be cautious of those using rhetoric because they have ulterior motives. The truth is labour is going to lead the charge on the frontlines for a strong recovery from this pandemic. Labour is what makes the world go round. Today, we celebrate the working people of our country.”
Guest speaker, ‘Lanny’ from Kincardine spoke on behalf of the LGBTQ2+1 community saying that, as a transgender person, he had had only a few problems that were dealt with. “One employee at work (Sobey’s) decided to ‘out’ me, which means telling someone or a group personal information about gender, gender expression, sexual orientation or other things that a human has confided in you privately and in safety. I am a transgender human but I am also a parent and ‘outing’ me puts my kids at risk. I went to my union steward and told him what happened and we figured out a game plan. The employee got disciplined and the employer and union made sure I was okay.”
He said that what is needed in going forward is training and understanding what should and should not be said about an individual’s race, gender expression or orientation.
Dave Trumble, Vice-president of GBLC, pointed out that the union supports the Women’s Centre in Owen Sound, Kincardine Pride parade, the United Way and others. The Grey Bruce Labour Council gave its unreserved support to the first Pride parade in Kincardine in 2017. Trumble read greetings from Fort Papalia, President of Kincardine Pride inc., pointing out that GBLC, local unions and UNIFOR had shown courage and leadership in the community by showing that discrimination, harassment, bullying or any form of indignity will not be tolerated or accepted in silence anymore … being gay, lesbian or transgender should not be joked about … everyone should feel valued and safe regardless of gender identity or expression. Papalia pointed out that that Municipality of Kincardine has been totally accepting and flies the Pride flag at three locations during Pride month and, because of the GBLC support, the Kincardine Pride Parade was recognized by FLARE magazine as one of the six small-but-mighty Canadian Pride parades.
“The Grey Bruce Labour Council is grateful to the communities that showed their support for Labour Day 2021 – Brockton, Owen Sound, Arran-Elderslie and Kincardine, by flying the “Celebrating Labour” flag,” said Trumble. The Labour Council had also asked other communities to fly the flag, but “… sadly they declined or simply ignored the opportunity to demonstrate support for workers in their communities.”