Toronto's Labour Day Parade and Labour History

August 30, 2019 | Bill V.

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It's the Labour Day long weekend and one's thoughts naturally turn to:

  1. Visiting The Canadian National Exhibition (Or, as we usually think of it, the CNE or The Ex).
  2. Going back to school (supplies and new corduroys!)
  3. Getting stuck in traffic jams to and from a cottage.
  4. Marching in or watching a parade.

So here are some books and items from our Digital Archive about the Labour Day Parade in Toronto.

1883 Labour Day Banner
Presented by W. M. Milligan Grocer Queen Street West to the Builders Labourers Union No 1  on July 17, 1883 United We Stand / Divided We Fall. From the Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1921.

This interesting and old banner was used in 1921 to lead the Labourers Union during the annual Labour Day Parade.

The workers' festival  a history of Labour Day in Canada

The Workers' Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada

"In The Workers' Festival, Craig Heron and Steve Penfold examine the complicated history of Labour Day from its origins as a spectacle of skilled workers in the 1880s through its declaration as a national statutory holiday in 1894 to its reinvention through the twentieth century. The holiday's inventors hoped to blend labour solidarity, community celebration, and increased leisure time by organizing parades, picnics, speeches, and other forms of respectable leisure."

The origins of Canada's Labour Day as a holiday can be traced back to April 15, 1872, when the Toronto Trades Assembly organized Canada's first significant demonstration for worker's rights. The aim of the demonstration was to release the 24 leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union who were imprisoned for striking to campaign for a nine-hour working day. Later a second demonstration happened in Ottawa leading to the change in labour laws and the repealing of bans on trade unions. Celebration of the labour movement moved from spring to autumn in 1894 to match up with the United States. Elsewhere in the world, especially Europe, May 1 is generally considered Labour Day. 

If you want to know about the origins of Labour Day, my colleague John P. has written a wonderful blog: Remembering the First Labour Day in Toronto: September 3: Snapshots in History. We've got some quirky pictures and ephemera relating to Labour Day and the marches including images from the 1970s when labour relations were a bit fraught. We also have quite a bit written on labour history.

Trade unions in Canada 1812-1902

Trade Unions in Canada 1812-1902

You can also see the more contemporary:

Labouring lives  work and workers in nineteenth-century Ontario

Labouring Lives: Work and Workers in Nineteenth-Century Ontario

"An integrated labor history that incorporates detailed studies of working people's experiences in 19th-century Ontario in areas previously neglected or deserving of reconsideration, such as farm labor, housework, lumbering, and industrial labor in factories or on the railroads."

Canadian Working-Class History  Selected Readings

Canadian Working-Class History, Third Edition: Selected Readings

"Canadian Working-Class History: Selected Readings, Third Edition, is an updated version of the bestselling reader that brings together recent and classic scholarship on the history, politics, and social groups of the working class in Canada. Some of the changes readers will find in the new edition include better representation of women scholars and nine provocative and ground-breaking new articles on racism and human rights; women's equality; gender history; Quebec sovereignty; and the environment."

The Canadian labour movement a short history

The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History

"Tells the story of Canada's workers from the mid-nineteenth century through to today. Describes the rise of globalization and the restructuring of the private sector that began in the nineties and continues today. The results have been catastrophic for Canadian working people as plants closed and union activities were curtailed."


There are many different unions and local represented in the parade over the years but some of the quirkier floats and political images can be seen below. 

Toronto laborers celebrating their union's 75th anniversary paraded in 1890s costumes in the 1969 Labor Day march to the CNE
Toronto Laborers: celebrating their union's 75th anniversary, paraded in 1890s costumes in the 1969 Labor Day march to the CNE. The Ex has been presenting of Labor Day celebrations since 1901. Toronto Star Photograph Archive.

Drawn to change graphic histories of working-class struggle

Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle

"Canadian labour history and working-class struggles are brought to life in this anthology of nine short comics, each one accompanied by an informative preface. Each comic showcases the inspiring efforts and determination of working people who banded together with others to fight to change the world."

1976 Labour Day Parade - images of Pierre Trudeau and Bill Davis
Viewpoint on wage controls is illustrated by 2 of the 12,000 marchers in yesterday's Labor Day parade at the Canadian National Exhibition. They wear caricatures of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Premier William Davis carrying a giant screwdriver. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1976.


Labour Day Parade 1976 Toronto Star photo - men carrying Huge lock and chain - representing the federal Anti-Inflation Board
Labour Day Parade showing huge lock and chain - representing the federal Anti-Inflation Board - made and carried for the Labor Council of Metro Toronto by Partisan (a local arts group that supports labor) was among unusual floats. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1977.


Working People An Illustrated History of the Canadian Labour Movement

Working People: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Labour Movement

"From the dock workers of Saint John in 1812 to teenage "crews" at McDonald's today, Canada's trade union movement has a long, exciting history. Working People tells the story of the men and women in the labour movement in Canada and their struggle for security, dignity, and influence in our society."

1988 Labour Day Parade Toronto - Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and U.S. President Ronald Reagan images to protest Free Trade
Toronto Labour Day Parade Float fun: Parade participants sporting masks resembling Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and U.S. President Ronald Reagan were a hit with spectators (protesting the Free Trade Agreement). Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1988.

Direct action gets the goods a graphic history of the strike in Canada

Direct Action Gets the Goods: A Graphic History of the Strike in Canada

"The Graphic History Collective has created an illustrated chronicle of the strike--the organized withdrawal of labour power--in Canada. For centuries, workers in Canada--Indigenous and non-Indigenous, union and non-union, men and women--have used the strike as a powerful tool, not just for better wages, but also for growing working-class power."


1985 Labour Day Parade Members of the Canadian Air Line Flight Attendants Association which represents 3 200 attendants on strike against Air Canada  receive shouts of encouragement from spectators watching yesterday
Members of the Canadian Air Line Flight Attendants Association, which represents 3,200 attendants on strike against Air Canada, receive shouts of encouragement from spectators watching yesterday's annual Labor Day parade. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1985.


1982 Labour Day Parade Toronto unemployed workers union
"This band of jobless workers, who formed an unemployed workers union recently, joined the parade to lend each other moral support and prove that Metro's unemployed are not alone in their plight." Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1982.

Labouring Canada  class  gender  and race in Canadian working-class history

Labouring Canada: Class, Gender, and Race in Canadian Working-class History

"This text is a collection of classic and contemporary articles exploring the nature of work in Canadian history from the late eighteenth century to the current day. Class relations and labour form the core of the volume, but attention will also be paid to the state and its relations withworkers both formal and informal."

1967 Labour Day Parade International Stereotypers and Electrotypers
Labour Day Parade International Stereotypers and Electrotypers Local 21. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1967.


1973 Labour Day parade Toronto
Metro unionists,  8,500 strong, march to the music of 20 bands and accompanied by 30 floats in the 92nd annual Labor Day parade. The march from Queen St. and Spadina Ave. to the CNE marked the 102nd anniversary of Labor Council of Metro Toronto, an organization of 350 unions with a membership of more than 150,000. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1973.

Lastly, if you're watching the Labour Day parade in Toronto, keep an eye out for the Toronto Public Library Workers Union TPLWU 4948 CUPE as we march and celebrate our 10th anniversary this year. 

Labour Day Parade 2016 Library Union TPLWU 4948 CUPE
2016 Labour Day parade. Toronto Public Library Workers Union 4948 CUPE.


You may also be interested in some of these other blogs TPL staff have written: