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Celebrating Labour Day’s Ottawa Origins

Celebrating Labour Day’s Ottawa Origins


By Adam Slight

This weekend we celebrate Labour Day! You probably get an extra day off work, or have to move into University residence, or wear white for the last time common etiquette allows it. But did you know the origins of Labour Day in Canada have their roots in Ottawa’s formative labour force?

In the earlier decades of the 19th Century, Ottawa (then Bytown) was a community composed primarily of Irish and French migrant workers, working in challenging conditions to build the Rideau Canal, strategically connecting the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers with the St. Laurence. When the Rideau Canal was completed in 1832 many of these labourers turned to the lumber industry, working at the many lumber mills in the area.

It was during this industrial age that laborers around the western world began to demand more humane working conditions. In Canada, this took form in the “9-Hour Movement”—a movement to force employers to reduce the standard working day from 12 hours down to nine. Employers were not too keen on this request, so, in 1872 the Toronto print industry went on strike followed by a public laborers demonstration. Charged for conspiracy, this demonstration led to 24 arrests.

Following these arrests, Ottawa’s labour force began to take to the streets in demonstration as well, prompting Sir John A. Macdonald to rise to support the demonstrating workers, legalizing and protecting union activity and earning the favour of the working class. In 1894, the government recognized Labour Day as an official holiday, and Labour Day traditions quickly spread across Canada.