According to many history books, Labour Day began in the United States when the Knights of Labor organized a parade on Sept. 5, 1882 in New York City.
As is often the case, the history books got one thing right and another wrong. The Knights did hold a parade in 1882, but the history of Labour Day began 10 years earlier, and in a place much closer to home.
On April 15, 1872, when Canada was just five years old, the Toronto Trades Assembly organized a “workingman’s demonstration” to call for the freedom of 24 imprisoned leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union.
The demonstration, which was attended by 10,000 people, included a parade and speeches that called for the repeal of a law criminalizing membership in trade unions.
Buoyed by the success of the demonstration, members of seven Ottawa trade unions organized a mile-long parade on Sept. 3, 1872, once again to protest laws that made union membership illegal. But this wasn’t your average parade; marchers stopped at the home of then-prime minister
John A. Macdonald, literally picked up the PM and took him to Ottawa city hall by torchlight.
The prime minister was well aware of workers’ discontent with the law, and on the steps of the city hall, he promised marchers that his party would “sweep away all such barbarous laws from the statue books.”
Later that year, Mr. Macdonald and his party made good on his promise, and for the next decade, trade unions continued to hold annual parades and demonstrations.
On July 22, 1882 in Toronto, New Yorker Peter J. McGuire, the general secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, spoke at the demonstration. He was duly impressed with the event and, when he returned home, he proposed that America celebrate a day in honour of workers. Sure enough, the Americans celebrated their first unofficial Labour Day on Sept. 5, 1882. Over the next decade, individual states enacted legislation making the first Monday in September Labour Day.
In the summer of 1894, the Canadian Parliament enacted a similar law, and now the first Monday in September is celebrated as Labour Day throughout North America.