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Remember This? Ottawa's first Labour Day

Ottawa celebrated its first official Labour Day on Monday, Sept. 1, 1890, a day that Mayor Erratt declared a municipal holiday.
Labour Day
Route of the 1890 Labour Day procession.

CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.

In Canada, Labour Day, held on the first Monday of September, is the fourth and last statutory holiday of the summer season—for Ontarians, after Victoria Day in late May, Canada Day on July 1 and the Civic holiday in early August.

 As such, it also informally marks the end of summer with most kids, those in French school boards being the big exception, heading back to class on the following Tuesday. It is typically a day for family leisure activities—a last dip in the lake before heading home, a barbecue in the backyard or in a park, or a trip to the cinema to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster.  In bygone years, however, the holiday had a deeper significance. Its purpose was to celebrate the achievements of workers, especially those of organized labour.

Some historians contend that Labour Day celebrations had their origins in the parades and demonstrations held in support of a nine-hour work-week during the early 1870s, like the ones organized in Hamilton and Toronto in 1872. Two American men are believed to have first conceived the idea of a statutory holiday in honour of the “labouring classes”—Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, and Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labour Union of New York. Both men appeared in the first US Labor Day parade held in New York on Sept. 5, 1882.

Here is Canada, organized labour with links to US unions, such as the Knights of Labor, began to lobby for similar workers’ celebrations and the creation of a workers’ holiday. They received official support in 1889 with the report of the Royal Commission on the Relations between Labour and Capital that recommended the establishment of a statutory holiday throughout Canada to be known as Labour Day.

Ottawa celebrated its first official Labour Day on Monday, Sept. 1, 1890, a day that Mayor Erratt declared a municipal holiday. The Ottawa Journal indicated that this was not only a first for Ottawa, but “the first holiday of this kind in this country.” The capital’s trade unions were enthusiastic participants. All participated in the morning parade, some sporting their union badges and most likely dressed in their Sunday best. However, members of the Typographical Union voted down a resolution in favour of its members wearing “plug” hats in the parade. Plug hats were formal wear, such as bowler and top hats. It is likely that such heard gear was rejected on class grounds; they were not suitable for a parade in honour of the working classes. The afternoon was devoted to a picnic, dancing, and athletic events.

Not all people were keen participants in the Labour Day events. In the lead-up to the holiday, one alderman at city hall grumbled about firemen participating in the parade, arguing that they were there to put out fires, not parade in streets. Chief McVeity, the head of the Ottawa Police Department, objected to his department participating in a tug-of-war contest with their Dominion Police Force counterparts. At the last moment, a substitute tug-of-war contest between the Ottawa and Hull fire departments was arranged.

The organized events were a very masculine affair. There is no reference to women participating in the parade. The Ottawa Journal did note that there would be “plentiful provisions” for the care of the wives of union members and their families. Women also didn’t participate in the afternoon sporting contests either. Instead, they were invited to a needle-threading contest—how many needles could they thread in five minutes.

Monday, Sept. 1, 1890 dawned a perfect day. Many homes and businesses were decorated for the event. Canadian, British, French and US flags flew along the parade route. While the Mayor had declared the day to be a holiday, not all firms were closed for the full day. Bryson, Graham & Company, the big, retail store on Sparks Street, held a mammoth “Trades and Labour Sale” from 7:00am to 1:00pm on that first Labour Day. It did close for the afternoon to allow its employees to participate in the scheduled athletic events.

Union members participating in the big parade were encourage to get to the union offices early in preparation for the walk to Cartier Square where the parade marshals would assign them their position in the procession, scheduled to depart at 8:15 am sharp. The order of the route took parade participants from Cartier Square at Maria Street (now Laurier Avenue) to Nicholas Street, into the Byward Market area, to St. Patrick Street, along Sussex Street, back to Rideau, then to Sparks Street, to Bank, Wellington and Lyon Streets, before returning to Cartier Square, via Sparks, Bank, and Maria Streets.

Roughly two thousand men marched in the parade which took almost a half hour to pass a given spot on the route. Of all the marchers, the Pressmen were stood out as they carried Japanese parasols. The also sported buttonhole bouquets and silver badges. As well, the men printed handbills, which they distributed to the crowds of well-wishers watching the parade, using a small Gordon job press.

In the afternoon there were an athletic competition and a dance at Lansdowne Park. More than five thousand people attended with the grand stand overflowing. Music was provided by the McGillicuddy’s Orchestra. Those who didn’t want to dance could visit an art show also held at Lansdowne Park.

The sporting events were very popular. There were foot faces, hackman races, bicycle races, a butchers’ cart race, a lacrosse ball throwing contest and, as noted earlier, a tug of war contest between the Ottawa and Hull fire brigades. For those who were wondering about the needle-threading contest, sixty-three women entered the event with Miss O’Neill emerging victorious, having threaded 35 needles in five minutes. Miss Raney and Miss O’Meara were tied for second place with 31 needles. In the tie breaker, Miss Raney won with 39 needles threaded in five minutes.

The finale of the sporting events was the greasy pig contest. In the midst of a mob of several hundred men, a greased pig was released. Whoever caught it, kept it. After a long struggle, the terrified porker was finally captured by a French-speaking man. However, the battle was not yet over. More than thirty policemen had to intervene to stop a fight and to permit the winner to make off with his prize.

The first Labour Day was considered to be a great success. According to the Ottawa Journal, men of every nationality, creed, political party and social class participated harmoniously in the parade “on the basis of fraternity, mutual assistance and dependence.” The Ottawa Citizen said that “Ottawa had ever reason to be proud.” Its labour organizations showed that they were “second to none in their enthusiasm, pride in their various callings, and their numerical strength.” The newspaper heartily thanked the organizers of the day’s events.

In 1894, the government of Conservative Prime Minister John Thompson officially made the first Monday in the month of September a statutory holiday called 'Labour Day.' The Act of Parliament received Royal Assent just days after a similar bill in the United States was signed by President Grover Cleveland.

 

 

 

 

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