A Toronto Labour Day parade from the early 1900s, shot by Yousuf Karsh
It’s Friday afternoon and around our office, we’re all thinking about the upcoming long weekend. Labour Day, for many Canadians, is just another day off, the end of the summer, a chance to sleep in one last time before school starts up again (and for the clubbier set, the last chance to wear white without being laughed out of the Yacht Club). But while you relax next holiday Monday — those of you who actually get the day off, and that certainly isn’t everyone — spare a thought for the Toronto workers who fought for reasonable working hours in the late 19th century, and whose actions led to the holiday we now enjoy.
For those not already up to speed on the origin story, here’s the short version: The declaration of Labour Day as a major holiday in Canada followed decades of agitating by union organizers demanding that work weeks top out at 54 hours. In Spring 1872, the Toronto Printers’ Union went on strike, demanding that the working day be set at nine hours per day. When George Brown, the proprietor of The Globe (which later became The Globe and Mail), tried to charge the union with conspiracy, it turned out that, according to Canadian law at the time, union activity was, in fact, illegal, and 24 organizers were arrested. On June 14, 1872, John. A. MacDonald’s government passed the Trade Union Act, legalizing union work. The celebration of that strike became an annual event, and in 1894, Labour Day was made an official holiday in Canada. The Americans soon followed suit, and it became a global phenomenon.
For the full history, this Canadian Encyclopedia article offers much more.