Can you imagine working a 12-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week work schedule in deleterious conditions? Most workers in the late 1800s in Canada were factory labourers or resource workers where conditions were so unsafe that serious injury or death was a common if not a daily occurrence.
The Canadian economy was booming during this time as Canada's natural resources gained value and our ability to manufacture them fattened cities with rural folk in search of a share of prosperity. Overcrowded with cheap labour and severely polluted, cities festered with poverty, shocking infant mortality rates and tuberculosis.
Workers were subjected to wage slavery as business owners cashed in on the labour surplus and a booming economy. Accidents were cheap from a business standpoint; worker injury or death was an acceptable expense.
In 1872, the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to fight for the nine-hour workday. Soon after, several trade unions joined them in solidarity for a 10,000-strong rally at Ontario's parliament building. Workers were imprisoned, as Canadian law did not protect trade unions at that time. Political battle lines were drawn and in the end, the government of then prime minister John A. MacDonald enacted the Trade Labour Act of 1872.
The nine-hour workday movement and the printers' strike that inspired it became an annual parade of worker rights. And after a New York labour organizer was inspired by these parades in Toronto, New York proclaimed a "Labour Day" holiday to push for an eight-hour-work-day and to celebrate the achievements of these pioneering workers. Canada followed suit when the government of then prime minister John Thompson passed a law making Labour Day an official statutory holiday in 1894.
The origin of Labour Day is often lost in our quest for one last summer weekend hoorah and the bustle to get ready for the school season. But it's important to reflect on the past and why and how Labour Day came into being and its relevance today.
In a 2018 report, Canada's workmen compensation boards claimed 904 workplace-related deaths. And although an astounding number, it's likely extremely low because it reflects only accidents and some work-related illnesses and does not consider things like stress-induced suicides, commuting fatalities, and many occupational diseases. The actual number of work-related deaths according to researchers at the University of Ottawa is likely between 10,000 and 13,000 per year.
No less than four friends of mine are listed on the memorial plaque in Junction Park that honours Squamish's fallen workers. On Labour Day I like to think about Bamboo Bill Landry, Dal Shemko, Wael Audi and my wonderful friend, community builder and former fellow council member Ray Peters.
Enjoy your day off, but also take a moment to reflect and aspire for a better future.