International Workers’ Day in Canada
By Luana Ross, Senior Columnist
International Workers’ Day’s association to communism was even harder to shake after the Soviet Union adopted the holiday in hopes that the working classes of the US and Europe would band together against capitalism.
International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, is celebrated on the first of May by more than 80 countries across the globe. While May Day may conjure images of children dancing around a maypole with ribbons and celebrations of spring, the date also is a time to remember the politically-left strikes led by workers.
May Day was given this specific name to reference the demonstrations given by American workers that were looking to make the 8-hour workday the standard at a time when the norm in Canada was a 12-hour workday and a 6-day workweek. The first of May was chosen as a day to strike and protest in the states in 1886, and on that day more than 300,000 workers across the US walked out of their professions.
In continuing May demonstrations by the workers in 1886, tensions were palpable during what was originally a peaceful protest. During an earlier demonstration at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company plant in Chicago, a protestor was killed in a clash with police; this death was widely seen as unjust by other protesting workers. As the gathering was being shutdown by law enforcement, one protestor tossed a homemade bomb and murdered several police officers. This quickly descended the gathering into a riot. In total seven police officers were killed, and 60 were injured—and somewhere from four to eight civilians were killed—and 30 to 40 were wounded. This event is known as the Haymarket Riot.
The group of people who were accused of committing the murders of police at the riot are called the “Haymarket Martyrs.” For these crimes, eight of the protestors were tried and convicted. In the end, while seven of the men were supposed to be hung, four were executed. The others were sentenced to life in prison, and one died by suicide while the others stayed in prison for six years before being pardoned.
All of these events have since been associated to International Workers’ Day and have since inspired many famous socialists and anarchists to pursue politics. The day isn’t simply rooted in violent protest though; May Day was in part renewed in America by work done by the conservative American Federation of Labor (led by anti-socialist Samuel Gompers) who encouraged cautious demonstrations.
ANTI-COMMUNIST SENTIMENT IN CANADA
Canada’s first celebrations of International Workers’ Day occurred in 1906—after some had already declared Labour Day (the official September holiday) the unauthentic fun-and-games and government-backed version of the worker’s holiday. Nearly 1000 Montreal citizens (mainly immigrant workers) gathered at the Empire room. In 1907, the reoccurring protest led to violent encounters, a dissipated gathering, and much unease. Montreal’s demonstrations of the yearly event were the biggest in Canada until WWI in 1914.
The Communist Party of Canada (CPC), founded in 1921, brought a lot of popularity to the event until they were declared illegal in 1931. Due to strong anti-Communist sentiment, the May Day demonstrations were repressed by the police. The CPC was given freedom once again in 1936 and May Day celebrations popped up in several places in western Canada—and dominated Labour Day in some of these areas. Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Vancouver all participated in International Workers’ Day events at this point. But in 1945 and onwards, as WWII ended and the Cold War begun, the day again faced contempt from a population with great disdain for communism. The pendulum shifted again, in Quebec especially, during the 1970s. While demonstrations occurred in western Canadian cities like Winnipeg and Vancouver, Quebec was experiencing a radical union movement, so the day was celebrated on a much more significant scale than other areas of Canada.
IS LABOUR DAY THE VANILLA VERSION OF MAY DAY?
Labour Day is a separate event—and a statutory holiday unlike International Workers’ Day in Canada. (In some countries, the day is an official holiday that workers have off.) The first Monday in September is Labour Day, and some see a stark contrast between the two often confused days. Some see the bonding of the working class as what defines International Workers’ Day. Others—like the Montreal trade and labour council according to historian Jacques Rouillard—find May Day’s ties to socialism and communism too negative to bear and instead celebrate Labour Day. International Workers’ Day’s association to communism was even harder to shake after the Soviet Union adopted the holiday in hopes that the working classes of the US and Europe would band together against capitalism. Labour Day has its own share of negative associations; the Nazis officiated Labour Day in 1933… and banished free unions and essentially ended the German labour movement the day after establishing Labour Day.
Even though some may have distaste for one day or the other, the two events were similarly borne from the needs and desires of the working class. Spring and fall were popular periods for Canadian workers to march and demonstrate and, as early as 1880 according to SFU professor Mark Leier in The Tyee, Labour Day celebrations by workers consistently reoccurred during May and September. Some even say that the origin of Canada’s Labour Day was the 1872 Toronto printers’ strike which had one tenth of the population of the city in attendance. The printers’ strike led Conservative Prime Minister John. A Macdonald to decriminalizing unions in Canada (some point out the election right around the corner as a motivator for Macdonald).
Many Canadian workers were calling for an official Labour Day, but the day was being celebrated in several ways regardless of official status. The event was so well supported in Canada that in 1882, an American witnessed the labour demonstrations in May in Toronto and was compelled to bring together the first unofficial American labour day the following September.
Finally in 1894 the Canadian government made Labour Day a reality after seeing the US officiate the date—and chose the first Monday of September for the holiday. Some more radical theories state that the date was chosen by conservative governments to take attention away from May Day, but that theory has no evidence according to Leier and instead other factors like the end of harvest and the unofficial use of September by workers previously are likely what was considered.
Both Labour Day and May Day come with rich and similar histories despite what critics will tout about the separate days. Whether or not it’s necessary to officiate both dates, abolish one event, or simply leave the politically left leaning International Workers’ Day status unofficial will be answered as time passes. In the past, when the left-leaning labourers were strong in numbers they would celebrate May Day whenever it fell regardless of whether or not it was in the middle of the week. During years where they could not rally much spirit, they pushed the event to the weekend when more people could spare time. This year the date falls on a Saturday and during the COVID-19 pandemic so few answers will be offered about the strength of the support for International Workers’ Day this year.