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Labour Day of Love



In a world where skilled trades people fret about where the next generation of fallers and plumbers and will come from, where employees are "associates," where we've traded fossil-fuelled energy for labour, and where no one wants to be caught dead being a "worker" anymore, this one's for the secret, inner labourer in us all.

Hard work - hard labour - is part of Canada's DNA. Pioneers who cleared land, planted crops; fur traders and voyageurs who ventured inland; fishermen and lumberjacks - this country was built on many a strong, tired, back and still is.

In the early 1800s, writes Dorothy Duncan in her fascinating book, Feasting and Fasting, Canada's Heritage Celebrations , labourers commonly earned $12 to $17 a month, with men usually working 60 to 72 hours a week. If they were lucky, they had wives who put in as many hours or more cooking, cleaning, baking, putting up preserves, sewing and lord knows what else.

The first workers to fight for and win an eight-hour work day with no loss in wages were determined and politically savvy stonemasons and building tradesmen in Australia. That was in 1856 which, when you think about it, isn't that long ago given how the eight-hour workday is taken for granted today.

In Canada, labour societies began forming in the second half of the 19th century, as people moved away from farming and towards industrialization and jobs in cities and towns.

It's hard to imagine now, but trade unions were actually illegal in Canada until 1872. When they finally gained official recognition, it was cause for great celebration, marked with huge parades and picnics nationwide.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia , Canada tried for a while to celebrate labour on May Day, the first day of May, following the European tradition for acknowledging the contributions of labour.

We have the Trades and Labour Congress to thank for Labour Day. They petitioned the federal government long and hard for a national holiday, but it wasn't until 1894 that we got Labour Day - the first Monday in September.

I'm proud that Canada has had a long tradition of honouring labour and supporting the working class. And until the 2006 federal election, a mere 100 or so years after the inaugural Labour Day, we Canucks had held out against politics like the neoliberalism which swept through the US and Britain, favouring rich, upper classes over the labouring classes with obvious disastrous results (to wit, Thatcherism, Reaganism and, most pointedly, the misguided "neo-liberating" policies of Bill Clinton that were at the heart of the world's 2008 financial implosion).

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