Poster shows two clocks and the IWW logo. It reads "All will have work. Short hours. Wages will go up. Long wages."

History of Labour Day in Canada – The Fight for Fairness

Imagine working 66-hour work weeks or more, having no time for family, friends, or even yourself, and where 25 cents an hour was considered good pay. These were the working conditions of the common working class in the late 1800s. Labour conditions were at an all-time low, and the workers were struggling to keep up (Ok, maybe not so hard to imagine in 2022).

Hamilton, Ontario workers played an important role in the development of labour rights in Canada in response to these conditions. In 1872, 1,500 Hamilton workers marched for a nine-hour work day. This started a movement. The same year, 10,000 workers marched in nearby Toronto. Leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union were arrested and subjected to criminal prosecution all because they, along with their members, demanded decreased working hours at The Globe. At the time trade unions were still illegal in Canada and were still being actively repressed. Standing up to employers by going on strike would result in a ‘seditious conspiracy’ charge, and it often did. Some workers who protested for fair, safe working conditions even died at the hands of police or their employer’s private security.


The nine-hour march also known as the ‘nine-hour movement’ lead to a nine-hour workday instead of the standard twelve. The protest inspired more Canadian provinces to do the same. Following 1872 protests, Unions became legal in Canada and the Federal government introduced the Trade Unions Act which would be known as Canada’s first labour law. This law decriminalized trade unions giving workers the legal right to join a union. Later, unions and workers pushed for the now standard 8-hour day.

Today, the right to belong to a union as well as the right to strike are both protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as fundamental rights of Canadians. Labour Day is a celebration of this labour movement’s successes and a recognition of workers’ ongoing struggles. The labour movement has improved the lives of working Canadians in many ways. Most workers are entitled to paid holidays, safe workplaces, reasonable hours of work, union wages, and employment insurance. This would not have been possible if it were not for the people who spent years paving the way, often under the threat of criminal prosecution, job loss and violence.

Labour Day was declared a legal holiday by the Parliament of Canada on July 23, 1894. Historically, workers have commemorated the day with a variety of activities, such as parades, games, competitions, picnics, and speeches. Today, workers and others still march the streets to show their pride in union association, and host BBQs, picnics, and parades. You can find more information about upcoming labour day events here: Labour Day Events 2022 | Canadian Labour Congress


Labour Day is a statutory holiday in Ontario. Most Ontarians qualify for statutory holiday pay, it does not matter how recently you were hired or how many days you have worked before the holiday, if you are a full-time, part-time, permanent or contract employee, you can be entitled to holiday pay.

Alternatively, an employee can agree electronically or in writing to work on the statutory holiday and be paid:

  • Stat pay plus premium pay for all hours worked on the public holiday and NOT receive another day off; or
  • Receive their regular wages for all hours worked on the public holiday AND receive another day off for which they must be paid public holiday pay.

There are however two significant factors which could disqualify an employee from receiving holiday pay; those are:

  • Without reasonable cause, they failed to work their entire last regular scheduled day of work BEFORE the public holiday or their entire first regular scheduled day of work AFTER the public holiday (this is known as the ‘Last and First Rule’); or
  • Without reasonable cause, fail to work their entire shift on the public holiday if they agreed to or were required to.

Any employee who does not qualify for the public holiday entitlement, is still entitled to premium pay for every hour worked on a public holiday. You can find more information at Public holidays | Your guide to the Employment Standards Act |

If you are unionized, your Collective Agreement may set out your workplace’s approach to public holiday scheduling and pay. And, it probably guarantees you a few extra days off a year in addition to the public holidays we all enjoy.


Unfortunately, low pay, long hours and dangerous working conditions didn’t disappear in 1872. Many readers will have personally experienced workplace abuse. While unions and workers have won many victories, employers have worked hard to carve out exceptions. For example, many gig workers (like delivery drivers, bike couriers, uber drivers, etc) are excluded from hours of work and even minimum wage protections that people with more traditional employment may take for granted. Some workers, like farmworkers, are still excluded from the right to unionize under the Ontario Labour Relations Act, despite the physical demands and risks they face on the job. Unionization, legal action and protest remain important tools to fight back for workers and against corporate greed.