As a social historian, I am fascinated by the history of holidays and public celebrations. Holidays are one way that political authority and popular culture influence each other: governments decide which holidays to recognise, but the people decide how to celebrate them. Records of these celebrations offer a unique window into the past, yielding insight into how our culture and society has (or has not) changed. In honour of this year’s September long weekend, I took the opportunity to look back at how Albertans celebrated Labor Day in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Parliament of Canada passed legislation in 1894 setting aside the first Monday in September as a statutory holiday. The proclamation of this new holiday was one of the many recommendations in the final report of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital (1889), which had investigated conditions in factories and industrial worksites across Canada. Given the range of problems exposed by the Commission – including low wages, unsafe working conditions, and the widespread use of child labour – a new holiday was perhaps less urgently needed than other reforms. Nonetheless, the idea of a new holiday received widespread support, and Canada celebrated its first Labour Day on September 3, 1894.
In the heavily-industrialised cities of eastern Canada, this legislation merely caught up with what was already happening in many urban communities, where organised labour had started to take root in the late nineteenth century. Skilled workers such as carpenters, printers, stonemasons and pipefitters organised into craft unions to protect their particular interests. Leaders of these craft unions began to push hard for a holiday that recognised the importance of their labour, and many cities responded by declaring Labour Day a civic holiday in the 1880s. By the time Labour Day was declared a national holiday in 1894, workers in cities like Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal had already been celebrating it for many years.
By contrast, in the relatively new and lightly-industrialised cities of Alberta, the first Labour Day passed with little fanfare. “To-day is Labor day, or rather, no labor day,” the Edmonton Bulletin dryly commented in September 1894, “and as a consequence, the stores in town are closed.” Within a few years, however, each Labour Day was met with greater enthusiasm, and Albertans enjoyed the holiday in ways that would be familiar to us over a century later.
Outdoor recreation soon became an important feature of the day, as sportsmen took advantage of the newly-created long weekend for hunting and fishing excursions. Organised sports were soon an important part of Labour Day as well, with bicycle races, track and field competitions, and team sports organised in different parts of the province by the late 1890s. In 1899, the Edmonton Cricket Club invited their rivals from Calgary for a tournament on the Labour Day weekend – an early example of the Calgary-Edmonton sports rivalry that remains such a feature of Labour Day in present-day Alberta.
Early Labour Day celebrations in Alberta were marked by sports, leisure and recreation, but had little to do with recognising the working class.
This changed after 1900 with the rise of organised labour in Alberta, particularly in its largest cities. Between 1900 and 1910, roughly one-third of the skilled tradesmen in Calgary and Edmonton organised into craft unions. As a result, Labour Day celebrations in Calgary and Edmonton began to resemble the much larger events held in eastern Canada, with parades, speeches, and labour-organised leisure events. In 1904, for example, the Edmonton Trades and Labour Council organised a “monster parade” of the city’s craft unions down Jasper Avenue. The men (and they were all men – early twentieth-century craft unions were exclusively male organisations) marched in orderly procession behind banners, flags and brass bands, wearing find clothes to emphasise their respectability to the general public. The parade included a number of floats where tradesmen demonstrated their craft to the audience. The day ended with organised sports, pitting one union against another in good-natured competition, and speeches where union leaders spoke about the contributions of labour to social and economic prosperity. In Calgary in 1907, an estimated two thousand people marched down Stephen Avenue, followed by an afternoon of sports and family entertainment in Victoria Park. Similar scenes played out on a smaller scale in Alberta’s coal mining centres such as Drumheller and the Crowsnest Pass.
These events, of course, did not represent Alberta’s entire working class. Early Labour Day celebrations were driven by craft unions – unskilled workers had little official presence at the events. The labour contributions of women were not generally recognised at these events, though women certainly took part in the leisure and recreation activities after the parade. Further, the exclusive focus on organised labour was soon diluted by the participation of other community groups and organizations in the annual parade. Nonetheless, these parades represent a colourful and important part of Alberta’s labour history, when craft unions sought to use a holiday to claim public space and promote an image of respectability and dignity. Such events were very uncommon after World War Two, as Labour Day celebrations returned to the pattern established in the 1890s – informal recreation, family leisure, and of course, sports rivalries.
Written by: Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer.
Bright, David. Limits of Labour: Class Formation and the Labour Movement in Calgary, 1883-1929. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1998.
Finkel, Alvin. Working People in Alberta: A History. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2012.
Herron, Craig and Steve Penhold. The Workers’ Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.