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EDITORIAL: Roots of Labour Day worth remembering

Annual holiday marks past battles for employment standards

It could be the most peaceful holiday to come out of a turbulent past.

When Canadians celebrate Labour Day this Monday (Sept. 4), for most it will be a time of rest and relaxation, a last chance to kick back and enjoy one final holiday weekend before the unofficial end of summer and the start of the new school year.

Union members and labour organizations will mark the day with events across the nation, including parades, picnics, concerts and advocacy for workers’ rights.

They might not be quite the must-see events of Labour Days of old, particularly those at the time the holiday was first declared in Canada, in 1894.

The hard-won battles for recognition of collective bargaining and workers’ need for better hours and working conditions were still fresh in people’s minds then, and formalized annual celebrations were a no-brainer.

Memories still reached back to 1872, when a strike by printers in Toronto had resulted in a brutal response from employers. Violence, intimidation, police action and smear tactics were used with such force that they actually began to turn the tide of public opinion away from the status quo and toward the labour movement.

A nine-hour working day might sound draconian to modern ears – yet that was the major reform the printers were asking for (the prevailing standard at the time was 12-hour days, six days a week).

They didn’t win that battle, but they won a larger war. Waves created by the strike ultimately led Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to pass the Trade Union Act, which legitimized and protected all union activities in Canada. And employment rights and standards we take for granted today were only possible because of this.

Almost 130 years after Canada’s Labour Day was made official, it’s understandable that its significance might have faded.

But in an era marked by many who would like to turn the clock back even further on social reforms, the need to remember the sacrifices of the past are ever more important.