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To many it is a sale day. To others it is the unofficial end of summer. And still to others it means back to school or the Jerry Lewis Telethon.

But Labor Day is a holiday for a reason.

The origins of modern day Labor Day are said to be be traced back to the Knights of Labor in the United States and a parade organized by them on September 5, 1882 in New York.

In fact, they were inspired by an annual labor parade held in Toronto.

The origins of Labour Day in Canada can be traced back to a printer’s revolt in 1872 in Toronto, where labourers tried to establish a 54-hour work week. At that time, any union activity was considered illegal and the organizers were jailed, at the behest of George Brown. Protest marches of over 10,000 workers were formed in response, which eventually led to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald repealing the anti-union laws and arranging the release of the organizers as well.

The fight of the Toronto printers had a second, lasting legacy. The parades held in support of the Nine-Hour Movement and the printers’ strike led to an annual celebration.

And it was this foundation which led to Labor Day as it known in the States.

Labour Day has been celebrated on the first Monday in September in Canada since the 1880s. The September date has remained unchanged, even though the government was encouraged to adopt May 1 as Labour Day, the date celebrated by the majority of the world.

With the event of Chicago’s Haymarket riots in early May of 1886, U.S. president Grover Cleveland believed that a May 1 holiday could become an opportunity to commemorate the riots. Thus, fearing that it might strengthen the socialist movement, he quickly moved in 1887 to support the position of the Knights of Labor and their date for Labour Day. The date was adopted in Canada in 1894 by the government of Prime Minister John Thompson. Socialist delegates in Paris in 1889 appointed May 1 as the official International Labour Day.

The September date has remained unchanged, even though the governments have been encouraged to adopt May 1 as Labo(u)r Day, the date celebrated by the majority of the world. Moving the holiday, in addition to breaking with tradition, could have been viewed as aligning the U.S. & Canadian labo(u)r movements with internationalist sympathies.

According to Howard Zinn in his research in A People’s History of the United States, the original parade in 1882 organized by the Knights of Labor had a loose affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, a main reason why the more progressive supporters of a labor parade preferred the May Day march. But the fear of socialism and communism prevailed and Labor Day & Labour Day remains in September

For some time Labo(u)r Day remained a time not only to commemorate labor’s contributions but also to draw public attention to the plight of workers and the struggle of labo(u)r unions to improve working conditions.

While Labour Day parades and picnics are organized by unions, many Canadians simply regard Labour Day as the Monday of the last long weekend of summer. Non-union celebrations include picnics, fireworks displays, water activities, and public art events. Families with school-age children take it as the last chance to travel before the end of summer. Some teenagers and young adults view it as the last weekend for parties before returning to school, which traditionally begin their new year the day after.

In the midst of all the barbecues and holiday sales, maybe we could try to take a second understand what those 19th century organizers in Toronto, New York, Detroit and elsewhere went through and sacrificed in order to put in place what so many of +us now take for granted.

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