Labour Day was inspired in large part by Canada’s growing industrialization in the second half of the 19th century, when competition for work in the nation’s rapidly growing cities was fierce and workers who complained of long workweeks or poor working conditions could easily be replaced.
Such was the case in Toronto in 1872, when printers threatened to strike after years of lobbying for shorter workweeks. Those protests went ignored, and on March 25, 1872, the city’s printers went on strike. Within weeks, other workers in the city began to support the printers, whose strike had interrupted Toronto’s thriving publishing industry.
Within three weeks of the printers going on strike, 2,000 workers marched through the streets of Toronto. The number of marchers gradually grew, and eventually 10 per cent of the city’s population, or 10,000 people, had joined in the march that culminated at Queen’s Park.
But the striking workers’ efforts did not go unchallenged, as Toronto Globe founder George Brown replaced his printers with workers from nearby towns and even took legal action to put an end to the strike and have its organizers arrested for criminal conspiracy.
But Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, who worked on the opposite side of the political aisle to Brown, spoke out against the publisher’s efforts during a public demonstration at City Hall. MacDonald eventually passed the Trade Union Act, decriminalizing trade unions, and set the leaders of the strike free. Though many printers who walked out never regained their jobs, and those that did still did not earn shorter workweeks, their efforts did mark an important step forward with regard to worker’s rights in Canada.
The movement that had started in Toronto soon spread to other Canadian cities, where workers also demanded shorter workweeks.
Other cities also adopted parades in honor of the march that first caught the attention of MacDonald in 1872, and in 1894 then-Prime Minister Sir John Thompson officially declared Labour Day a national holiday.