Great moments in Canada’s labour history

RavenLaw gratefully acknowledges the contribution of this post by articling student Marlee Olson

Even before Canada became a nation 150 years ago, workers in Canada were fighting for their rights. Although labour rights activists have had a lot to celebrate over the years, it has been a long and arduous journey. In honour of Labour Day as well as Canada’s 150th birthday this year, here are some of the highlights of the Canadian labour movement.

In the late 1700s, workers in Canada began congregating to demand fair wages in exchange for their labour. The government responded by putting laws into place making it a criminal offence to participate in trade unions. As a result, unions had no way to enforce contracts with employers to receive what they had been promised. The birth of the nation in 1867 was followed shortly after by the birth of the Canadian Labour Union, a political organization of unions that fought against the criminal sanctions imposed on trade unions. Despite this step forward, unions and employees still had no way to legally oppose employers, who would administer harsh discipline and demand 60-hour work weeks.

Several new laws in the early 1900s helped to ease the path to unionization in Canada, with union membership increasing at the start of WWI. After the war, the labour movement experienced several setbacks, including the violent crackdown on the famous Winnipeg General Strike. Although union membership decreased throughout the Great Depression, the period leading up to WWII saw unionism increase once again. The 1937 strike at General Motors in Oshawa is considered by many to be the birth of industrial unionism in Canada. After this, there was more pressure on the government to give legal protection to union members, but there were still no legal repercussions for employers who refused to cooperate.

Union membership doubled during WWII thanks to increased reliance on the work force. In 1944, the federal government implemented a wartime national labour relations law called PC 1003. This law finally placed obligations on both the employer and the union, and put into place many of the tenets of labour law that we still see today. Although repealed shortly after the end of the war, most provinces passed laws resembling PC 1003, including features like union recognition, the duty to bargain in good faith, and strict regulation of strikes. These rights were later extended to federal public service employees following the 1965 strike of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.

Although PC 1003 was the first legislation to provide unions and workers with clear legal protection, it has certainly not been the only law to do so. Occupational health and safety legislation started coming to effect across the country in the 1970s. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enacted in 1982, has entrenched the constitutional freedom of association. This right was interpreted by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2007 to include the right of employees to associate to achieve workplace goals without employer interference. The Supreme Court further held in 2015 that the constitutional right to freedom of association also includes the right to strike.

The labour movement in Canada has seen many victories throughout the past two centuries—workers have gone from risking arrest simply for participating in a union to having a constitutionally recognized right to strike. Although labour activists have made great strides, there are still many more hurdles in the path.  As we look back on the accomplishments throughout the years, we must also look forward to the challenges yet to come, as we continue to work towards fair and equitable working conditions for all.

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



"*" indicates required fields

Please fill in the following fields to contact Ravenlaw about your case. If we can help, we will get back to you within a single business day. Please click the submit button only once.
First name*
Last name*
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.