Ask most Manitobans today about the reason behind the Labour Day long weekend and they’ll probably mention it’s the last opportunity of the summer vacation season to head to the beach. Others may say it marks the beginning of the school year, or it’s an opportunity for some extra shopping. And still others will mention it’s the time for the Labour Day Classic between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders in Regina.
The original concept of Labour Day as a celebration of organized labour in Canada has been lost over time. In fact, some early labour leaders foresaw that Labour Day — by its very nature as a holiday for “all” Canadians — would eventually become viewed as just another vacation day, when Prime Minister John Thompson in 1894 declared the first Monday in September as a statutory holiday allegedly devoted to the trade union movement.
The organizer of Winnipeg’s first Labour Day in 1894 celebrations was the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, and featured a parade in the morning and an afternoon of sporting events. In an attempt to rally support for the event, The People’s Voice ran an editorial stating, “It should be considered an honour to be present, and each should bury any local differences — any petty squabbles, etc. — and come out enthusiastically to swell the throng and add appearance to the whole affair.”
Apparently, even the union organizations were somewhat skeptical about how Labour Day was to be celebrated. But in the end, it was reported that Labour Day 1894 witnessed the city’s largest parade to that point.
The First World War was the turning point for Labour Day in its original form. In Winnipeg, Labour Day parades had ceased to be held. Even 100 years ago, the Winnipeg Tribune reported on September 4 that Labour Day for labour was quietly celebrated. “There was no union parade. The celebration took on largely the aspect of any other summer holiday and perhaps more people participated in the various means of pleasure because of it being the final holiday of the summer season.”
“Trains to the beaches were crowded. The ‘Moonlights’ to Winnipeg Beach carrying the trippers to the last dance of the season at the lakeside were ‘loaded to the guards.’ The same conditions obtained on the Canadian Northern ‘Moonlight’ to Grand Beach.”
Officials of the Canadian Northern Railway declared that 2,500 day trippers enjoyed the excursion to Grand Beach.
“More than 700 persons took advantage of an excursion over the Greater Winnipeg Waterways Railway to Shoal Lake. On the journey down great interest was displayed in the stage to which the big pipe line (aqueduct) has been completed, while the beauties of Shoal Lake from which Winnipeg is soon to get its water supply came in for a great deal of admiration.”
The newspaper reported that the city’s golf courses attracted hundreds of Winnipeggers, “who tied to their desks on ordinary days decided to take full advantage of the last public holiday of the season ... The golfers spent a real day of it taking luncheon baskets and picnicking on the links ...”
Local movie and vaudeville theatres attracted hundreds of people. Movie-goers saw Charlie Chaplin at the Columbia Theatre starring in The Rink. At the Rex Theatre, Mary Pickford (Canadian-born movie star known as “America’s Sweetheart”) was featured in A Romance of the Redwoods.
The Manitoba Quoiting Association arranged a tournament for Labour Day on its grounds along Lombard Street. Quoits, which was highly popular at the time, is a game which involves the throwing of metal, rope or rubber rings over a set distance, usually to land over or near a spike, according to Wikipedia. It bears some similarity to horseshoes.
There was also trapshooting, baseball games, horse racing, boxing, football, and lawn bowling.
Before the war, the trades and labour councils of the city sponsored Labour Day celebrations that were noted for being as large as any held in any other Canadian city. “A parade, sports and other things have been customary,” reported the Tribune on August 3, 1917, noting that the parade had again been called off.
“When the war started it was deemed that the money could be expended to better advantage in other ways. In 1915 and 1916 picnics were held, but failing to make arrangements this year even the picnic has been called off.”
Despite the absence of a parade or picnic devoted to labour union members, the Manitoba Free Press reported “there was no lack of various forms of entertainment and sport ...
“The electrical exhibition, which opened at 11 a.m., drew many interested visitors, and the opening by the lieutenant-governor (James Aikins) in the evening was well attended.” At the time, electrical power in the province was just gaining headway, and visitors to the exhibition marvelled at the new technological breakthroughs in household appliances. The City Light and Power Department had a booth that was divided into rooms to depict the average home. In each room, popular juvenile performers “operated electrical appliances of all kinds which have been devised to lighten the labor of the home. As they operate the labor saving contrivances they sing at intervals or entertain in other ways.”
The contrivances included electric ranges, electric washers, smoothing irons, dish washers and potato peelers.
But before the war, Labour Day was feted as it was originally intended. The Voice, the local labour newspaper, reported on September 6, 1912, that the labour parade was well attended. The old adage, “Everyone loves a parade,” was very much in evidence. Photos from the period, show decorated bicycles, bands, floats and hundreds of marchers. A British woman, who witnessed the parade, wrote an account for the labour newspaper in which she related that it included a very original little decorated cart drawn by two dogs that was driven by a man under a coloured umbrella. She wrote that the parade gave honour to working men and women. “It is as it should be, and it would be well for all cities of the world to have such a Labor Day exhibit.”
Problems were encountered along the parade route by streetcars in operation and other vehicular traffic. The newspaper suggested that the city, police and the streetcar company suspend traffic for Labour Day the following year. “Probably no difficulty would be experienced in doing this as all recognize that such a parade is one of the best public exhibitions that can be desired.”
The parade in the morning was followed by sports at the Exhibition grounds in the North End. It was termed “Western Canada’s greatest sports meet.”
It’s true that the real meaning behind the holiday has diminished over time, but the Manitoba Federation of Labour still follows tradition and holds a march at Memorial Park and a BBQ at Vimy Ridge Park on Labour Day.