The historical roots of Canada’s labour day celebrations

How do Canadians view Labour Day? Most people see it as the last long weekend of the summer. It’s a chance to relax, regroup and get ready for the busy fall schedule. Unfortunately, many people don’t know the history behind Labour Day. It took many decades of struggle before Labour Day became a national holiday.

The origins of Labour Day began in 1872. Back then many people worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. There was no such thing as employment law, workers compensation, or a weekend.

In March of that same year, the printers union in Toronto wanted a 9-hour work day. But their employers refused to give in to their demands. That month they went on strike.

Public sympathy for the printers was high. In April, 2,000 workers marched through the streets of Toronto in a solidarity march. By the time they reached Queen’s Park, more than 10,000 people joined the demonstration. At the time, this was a tenth of Toronto’s population.

The printing industry started to get scared. Led by publishing magnate George Brown, their employers brought in workers from nearby towns to replace the strikers. They even pressured the government to charge and arrest the strike leaders for criminal conspiracy!

Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who was a political opponent of George Brown, saw the benefit of siding with the workers. Macdonald spoke out against Brown’s actions at a public demonstration at City Hall, gaining the support of the workers and embarrassing his rival. Macdonald passed the Trade Union Act, which repealed outdated that old British labour laws that decriminalized unions. The strike leaders were released from jail.

The workers still did not obtain their immediate goals of a shorter work week. In fact, many lost their jobs. But their strike proved that workers could gain the attention of their employers, the public, and most importantly, their political leaders if they worked together. The “Nine-Hour Movement,” as it became known, spread to other Canadian cities and a shorter work week became the primary demand of union workers in the years following the Toronto strike.

The parade that was held in support of the strikers carried over into an annual celebration of worker’s rights and was adopted in cities throughout Canada. The parades demonstrated solidarity, with different unions identified by the colorful banners they carried. In 1894, under mounting pressure from the working class, Prime Minister Sir John Thompson declared Labour Day a national holiday. 

Over time, Labour Day strayed from its origins and evolved into a popular holiday. That’s why it’s important to take a minute to think about Canada’s labour pioneers. Their actions laid the foundations for future labour movements and helped employees secure the rights and benefits we all currently enjoy.

Where will you be on labour day this year? Check what’s happening around you.



Labour of Love

I’ve got a special place in my heart for Labour Day. As summer winds down, Labour Day represents, the last long weekend of the summer before your kids start the school year. If you’re a decent parent, it’s the last chance to plan anything fun with your kids to do before they embark on a busy academic journey to greatness…oh the dreams of decent parents.

As a kid, my decent parents were grateful when other people volunteered to organize fun events for their children; this way they could actually have some kid-free fun. I believe I was 12 years old when my buddy Quintin’s grandmother, who was an SEIU member, invited me to the Canadian National Exhibition. Mother slid me a $20 bill with two bus tickets and told me to pay attention and not to get lost downtown. When we arrived via TTC, I was not at the CNE but on University Avenue with these people dressed in purple. They gave us purple shirts, a McCain juice box and put wristband on my wrist. No one told me I was going to be in a parade until I inquired how much longer we had to walk to get into the CNE! “The CNE is at the end of the parade,” Quintin’s grandma replied, “less talking, more walking.” 

By the time we got to the CNE, my youthful yet chubby legs were exhausted but the smell of fried foods rejuvenated my spirit. Kids love the CNE, especially chubby pre-teens like me.

As I got older, I understood the real significance of what Labour Day actually meant. As a labourer at Mount Sinai hospital, I remember having to work on Labour Day; since it was a holiday I was quite happy to accept a shift on a holiday as I would get paid extra for sacrificing my long weekend. As a young man on my grind, with tuition expenses mounting, I marched my way down University Avenue early one Labour Day morning to get to work. Passing numerous other unions preparing for the parade, I passed my own union’s medley of people. I saw my own chief steward from SEIU Healthcare who waved me over. We exchanged pleasantries, and joked that I was late… which I was. He knew I couldn’t be a part of the festivities due to the time of my shift but he handed me a purple shirt and told me “don’t forget the real meaning of why we celebrate Labour Day,” and I was off.

As a chubby teen, I never thought that one day I’d be providing positive memories for the next generation of union members and their families and friends. This year at the Toronto Labour Day, our aim is to relive some of the accomplishments of Labour Day’s history while building on the visions of the future. [See some of our pictures from last’s year Toronto parade.] To show strength and unity within the labour world while being boastful in the long legacy of SEIU Healthcare. We’ve been active on social media showcasing pictures from the past, so that when you see what we’ve got in store for this year, you ‘ll be able to see how far we’ve come in celebrating a day that signifies workers’ rights and respect for blue collar workers across the province.

I’ve experienced Labour Day in many ways at various times throughout my life. Regardless of what you do on Labour Day, take a moment to celebrate its significance and be grateful that without it, we’d have less of a chance to reflect on the contribution made be many great labourers all over North America.

To find out what Labour Day events are going on in your area click here. With many great local events taking place all over the province, it’s a fun way to get some family fun in before the September routine begins. Happy Labour Day!


…but what about assisted death?

This post follows one I wrote last week on suicide; usually the fatal result of a mental illness such as clinical depression. But this week I’m thinking and writing about a different kind of suicide: the death a rational person chooses because of their incurable poor, and usually declining, physical condition.

What “rational,” “incurable,” and “physical” mean are all debatable. But I’m talking about a growing movement in Canada for discussion about what’s often called either assisted suicide, assisted death, or euthanasia. The movement is sometimes referred to as “dying with dignity.”

What did Donald Low, a physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, and Gillian Bennett, a retired psychotherapist from British Columbia, have in common?

They both suffered from fatal diseases, and they both went out appealing to Canadians to please consider the right for anyone to “die with dignity.”

Donald died without outside intervention, despite his wishes (because euthanasia is illegal in most of Canada, although the law is changing in Quebec). Watch him talk about the issue here, a week before his death:

But Gillian committed suicide because of the dementia that was getting worse and rapidly taking over who she once was. She thought it through in detail and discussed it with her family. A website was launched on the day she died: It includes all of Gillian’s written reasoning and explanations.

The Healthy Debate blog posted that their most shared article this year is the one that thoroughly explains the difference between euthanasia and palliative care. This is a hotly contested and debated issue in Canada right now. The Canadian Medical Association also just discussed this at a big meeting in Ottawa.

Before she died, Gillian Bennett wrote: “Understand that I am giving up nothing that I want by committing suicide. All I lose is an indefinite number of years of being a vegetable in a hospital setting, eating up the country’s money but having not the faintest idea of who I am.” Pictures and video of her family discussing her death are on the Vancouver Sun.

Donald Low’s health was failing at a much faster pace and he did not take the dramatic step of suicide. But he did say: “What worries me is how I’m going to die. What the end is going to look like. […] Why make people suffer for no reason when there’s an alternative?”


Pharmacare: the time has come

Did you know: 

  • 1 in 10 Canadians cannot afford the prescription drugs their doctors prescribe to them.
  • Canadians without drug coverage are four times more likely to skip prescriptions because of high costs.
  • 10% of Canadians don’t buy drugs their doctor prescribed them because they can’t afford it. This rate is higher than Germany, Holland, UK, New Zealand and other Western countries.
  • 2 million Canadians pay more than $1,000 every year for their medications due to a chronic illness.

Even though our national healthcare plan covers a big portion of our health bill, patients are relying more on prescription drugs after they leave the hospital. If you have a serious disease like cancer, sometimes medication bills will can cost thousands of dollars. Even though a majority of Canadians have some kind of drug plan, they vary greatly and they usually cannot cover your entire drug bill.

Pharmacare opponents will rattle off their predictable argument claiming the program will cost too much money. But what they don’t tell you is that Pharmacare will help keep drug costs under control. Countries like Germany, France, Australia, Italy, Switzerland, Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, all of whom have universal drug coverage, spend 15-60 percent less per capita than Canadians do on pharmaceutical drugs. In fact, Canada would save $14-billion every year if we had a pharmacare plan that’s similar to the one in the United Kingdom. 

Keeping drug prices under control is important. Drug prices are rising by about 8% each year. The main reason why costs are rising so quickly is the development of new and expensive drugs. If the latest drugs were better, the increased cost might be acceptable, but the vast majority are not. Some studies have shown that only 15% of new drugs are significantly better than existing medications. In fact, the latest drug is sometimes less safe than existing drugs, which have been tried and tested for years. 

Pharmacare seems to be a healthy solution for our citizens and for our economy. Canadians would no longer have to worry about whether or not they will be able to pay for their medications. And in the long run it will help reduce costs and keep drug prices affordable.


Let’s talk about suicide and our responsibility

Like many, I have had friends and family traumatized and impacted by the suicides of close ones. In the 1960s a great-aunt of mine died this way but it was kept a secret from most of the family for years out of shame due to the taboo nature of it at the time. She had three young kids.

Despite the awkwardness and pain of talking about it, suicide is not entirely unusual.

Ten times more people died from suicide than from homicide over the last few years in Canada. That’s more than 3,000 people each year. All ages, genders. Think of how much time we spend in fear of others hurting us. It’s harder to talk about our own mental health, and for healthy people, it’s hard to understand the urge to die.

A quote from the American novelist David Foster Wallace about suicidal depression is floating around the internet, from his book Infinite Jest. The writing is quite good, and heart-wrenching.

Take a minute to let it sink in, to empathize with and imagine the pain and the discomfort so tortuous that a person would actually rather not live than continue their life under those circumstances.

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.

Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

As a society, we have to do better than be able to talk about suicide. Now that we have started lifting the stigma around mental illness and conversations about different mental conditions and disabilities are starting to enter the mainstream, we have to put our money where our mouth is: we actually have to make sure healthcare system works well for those who are in crisis, or getting there.

Unfortunately right now our public healthcare system is lacking in that regard; waitlists are full, solutions hard to find, the system confusing and intimidating to navigate for anyone but the most mentally calm and healthy, and the good doctors costly.

Warning signs for suicide include extreme mood swings, talking about suicide, talking about being a burden. To talk to someone for free and confidentially, call your local Distress Centre.


Cleaning up Outbreaks

With all the recent media coverage with the Ebola virus epidemic taking place in West Africa, and the global threats it may cause, infection control measures are intact to ensure public safety as well as our members within the healthcare system. Some people have asked the question “how safe are we all, really?”

Before I started working for SEIU Healthcare I was an SEIU member; I was a part of the Support Services team at Mount Sinai hospital for over 13 years and it was something I was proud to do. I was also aware of how easy infection control issues can spread, causing outbreaks and a serious risk to public health.

We truly have come a long way from the SARS outbreak in 2003. In the Toronto Star article, Dr. Allison McGeer speaks about having the best guidelines in preventing any outbreaks in Ontario after having gone through the horrific outbreak.

I remember what it was like going to work at the hospital during that period, having to fill out surveys before gaining entry, having to wear a hospital gown on top of my uniform, with gloves and a protective mask. Having to breathe into a mask for an 8-hour shift gets a bit annoying after a few days; feeling hot and tied down and then trying to peel out tight fitting hospital gowns for a 6 foot 4 man in torture. Trying to find a box of XXL gloves became a bit of a game from my travels from floor to floor as a porter. Not wearing the right size would result in my chubby fingers bursting out of the side of the lightly powdered latex glove. Safety first, always. SARS was no laughing matter.
But I know that these measures were in place for my own safety, and for the safety of each person around me.

Looking back at those memories, it was simply a routine procedure that was executed with hard work and by Dr.Allison McGeer and her dedicated infection control team at the hospital. Keeping the people inside and outside of the walls of the hospital safe. My heart goes out to all those suffering with the threat of Ebola in Africa. As more images begin to emerge from this situation, I can only hope that we can all contribute to help ending this global problematic virus.

I know that our members are making a difference in the various healthcare facilities, and knowing that safety in preventing outbreaks is still a top priority in Healthcare will make it easier to go home after a shift to their loved ones.


The best tool for health – walking

As someone who spends a significant among of time at work sitting down at a desk (most of the hours of the day!), I try to pay attention to the signs that my body needs a bit of movement: aches and pains, tender muscles, feeling heavy.

And then while on a brief walk at lunchtime I remembered a video I saw a few years ago.

I’m going to spoil it for you now, but it’s still a great watch. It was made by Toronto doctor Dr. Evans (who I believe still works at St. Mike’s and thus alongside many SEIU Healthcare members) and the main point is: try to limit your sitting and sleeping to just 23.5 hours a day.

That means moving, or walking, for the remaining half hour. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but sometimes with our busy lives, we don’t fit this in. However if it all possible, we all should. According to Dr. Evans and the research he cites in the video, simply walking for 30 minutes a day could be the single best thing we can do for our health.

Being sedentary is bad for our health but just 30 minutes a day of movement improves our figures, our heart health, and even our memory and mental health. It really helps mitigate risk factors for chronic disease.

It’s free and easy to go at your own pace. Walking 30 minutes a day may be the best preventative health trick out there. Check out some more pointers from the Mayo Clinic.