This Monday, as occurs the first Monday of every September, Canadians will celebrate Labour Day. The occasion is usually marked across the country by barbecues, get-togethers and marches, uniting families and friends before the official end of summer and the back-to-school rush. The holiday joins Family Day, Victoria Day, and the Civic Holiday, as vaguely-defined holidays with little meaning to most Canadians other than a day off.

In the case of Labour Day, the lack of recognition is perhaps unsurprising given its history. Labour Day was established in 1894, following the publication of the Report from the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital in Canada. Among the many proposals, most of which were ignored, the Royal Commission proposed the establishment of a labour day:

“Your Commissioners recommend that one day in each year be set apart by proclamation to be observed throughout the Dominion as a statutory holiday, and that it be known as Labour Day”

As noted by Professor David Frank, there were many important and necessary reforms recommended by the Royal Commission, such as union recognition, workers’ compensation, minimum wages and child labour laws, which were either too difficult or too inconvenient to implement. A statutory holiday, in contrast, was both popular and easy to enact. (See Ontario, Family Day, 2007).

Unfortunately, rather than providing a day of rest and celebration of the labour movement, Labour Day actually has the opposite effect for many of the most vulnerable labourers in the country. Many retail giants use the holiday as an opportunity to increase sales, and major grocery stores often lobby to remain open. Hundreds of thousands of workers employed in restaurants, gas stations, stores and supermarkets will thus be required to work on a statutory holiday meant to celebrate improved working conditions of all workers.

Ways to celebrate this Labour Day

For those interested in celebrating Labour on Labour Day, all is not lost. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of Canadians will be marching on Monday to mark Labour’s contribution to the betterment of working conditions for all workers. In Ottawa, the Labour Day March starts at noon at City Hall (Lisgar Entrance) and a Labour Day Picnic is scheduled at McNabb Park (Gladstone and Bronson) from 1PM-4:30PM.

Canadians could also spend Labour Day reading up on the labour-related issues in the upcoming Federal election. Some parties have proposed increases to the minimum wage and the abolition of unpaid internships. Hundreds of candidates with roots in the Labour movement are running, raising issues affecting workers and making them electoral issues. There are currently several challenges in the courts regarding labour-related legislation that is alleged to be contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—these issues can all be raised with current Members of Parliament and candidates.

Whatever else, Labour Day can be a day to reflect on the many advances that unions and workers have achieved. Historic achievements of the Labour movement, such as workers’ compensation, maternity leave, and pay equity, are well known and the effects of these gains continue to this day. There are also recent union victories that can be celebrated this Labour Day, such as decisions from the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal protecting workers from discrimination on the grounds of family status, and the Supreme Court’s recent recognition that workers have a Constitutional right to withhold their labour. In addition to these high-profile gains, unions and workers engage in daily challenges to unfair policies in the workplace, wrongful terminations, and fights for fairer wages that benefit all Canadians.

So, this Monday, reflect on the past, present, and future of the Labour movement, and have a safe and happy Labour Day.

[This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, which cannot be given without consideration of your individual circumstances.]