Remembering the First Labour Day in Toronto: September 3: Snapshots in History

September 6, 2018 | John P.

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As one celebrates Labour Day on the first Monday in September each year, take a moment and go back in time to September 3, 1894 when the first official Labour Day was celebrated in Canada, Ontario, and Toronto. The federal Conservative government of Sir John Sparrow Thompson implemented the first Labour Day as a national holiday in response to pressure from working people to celebrate a day acknowledging workers’ rights. In fact, the actions of working people some twenty-two years before in the shape of the Toronto printers’ strike of March 25, 1872 and the subsequent solidarity parade on April 15, 1872 of some 10,000 people helped to galvanize the presence of working people in Canadian society. George Brown counterattacked by bringing in replacement workers from rural Ontario and legally charged the printers’ union leadership (under an archaic British law dating back to 1792) for conspiracy. Watching from Ottawa in 1872, Conservative Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald noted as circumstances unfolded in large part due to his political rival George Brown. The government passed the Trade Union Act which decriminalized and legalized trade unions on April 18, 1872 and released the strike leadership from jail. However, working people still had a long way to go in establishing their rights in Canadian society as noted by Joanna Dawson in her August 31, 2011 article in Canada’s History entitled “The First Labour Day”:


“The workers still did not obtain their immediate goals of a shorter work week. In fact, many still lost their job. They did, however, discover how to regain the power they lost in the industrialized economy. Their strike proved that workers could gain the attention of their employers, the public, and most importantly, their political leaders if they worked together. The “Nine-Hour Movement,” as it became known, spread to other Canadian cities and a shorter work week became the primary demand of union workers in the years following the Toronto strike.”


The 1872 workers’ parade in Toronto was a catalyst for similar parades in different cities across Canada that championed the rights and issues of workers. Unions marched in those parades identified by their colourful banners. By the time that 1894 rolled around, the Canadian government got the message that such official acknowledgement was needed and passed legislation on July 23, 1894 that made Labour Day a national holiday in September.

Page 2 of the Toronto Daily Star newspaper issue on September 4, 1894 contained an article with the following headline:


“LABOR DAY GRANDLY CELEBRATED: Many Thousands Attend the Demonstration at the Island: SIR JOHN AND SIR OLIVER ABSENT: Others Have Kind Words to Say of the Victories Accomplished by Labor”. Here is an excerpt from that article:


“Not only was Labor Day a pronounced success, but the picnic at the island was one of the biggest successes ever held there..Not many of the stores closed in the morning, but it soon became apparent that the people were out for a holiday, and not much business was in sight, consequently by afternoon many of them closed, and Labor Day was acknowledged triumphant…By mid-day the crowds began to wend their way towards the boats which were to take them to the Island…About 3 o’clock the band stand was cleared of the musicians, and a number of politicians took their place…The chairman made a brief opening address, and expressed regret at the absence of Sir John Thompson [Prime Minister of Canada] and Sir Oliver Mowat [Premier of Ontario]. He congratulated his hearers on the splendid success of the inauguration of Labor Day as a public holiday…His Honor the Lieutenant-Governor [George Kirkpatrick]…expressed pleasure..of so important an event as the setting apart by the Parliament of Canada of a day in recognition of the dignity of labor, which was taking a more elevated and dignified place than ever before…”


To view this article in full, please access the Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card


Page 7 of the September 4, 1894 issue of the Globe newspaper offered the reader an article with the following title: “LABOR’S HOLIDAY: Its Inaugural Celebration in Toronto: AT ISLAND PARK: Speech by Lieut.-Gov Kirkpatrick: PROGRESS OF TRADE UNIONS”. Here is an excerpt from that article:


“…Labor Day, which yesterday was celebrated for the first time in the Dominion as a legal holiday, and which has taken firm hold in the principal States of the Union and countries of Europe, is one of the most effective of methods, yet discovered of placing the labor problems before the nation…The first celebration of Labor Day in Toronto was in the form of a picnic at Island Park, at which speeches were delivered by prominent citizens. The holiday proclaimed by the Mayor was not generally observed in the morning, except by those in the ranks of organized labor, but by noon it was recognized…that no business was being done, and the storekeepers followed the example set by the courts and banks and factories and closed their doors. The labor badge of red, white and blue was seen everywhere on the streets, the outgoing steamers were crowded notwithstanding the threatening weather, and the citizens to the number of many thousands took the ferries for Island Park…”


To view this article in full, please access the Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card.


Consider the following titles for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:


The workers' festival a history of Labour Day in Canada
The Canadian labour movement a short history
Building a better world an introduction to trade unionism in Canada
Working people an illustrated history of the Canadian labour movement 5th edition