A Brief History of Labour Day and Workers’ Safety & Rights in Canada

Labour Day in Canada, SafetyLine Lone Worker

Labour Day in Canada is recognized every first Monday of September since the 1880s. In the second half of the 19 century, Canada was changing rapidly with the increase of immigration, cities growing in numbers, and the industrial revolution drastically altering Canada’s economy and workforce.1

During this time work environments had deplorable conditions, low wages, and long workdays with a 6 day work week.  Trade unions were still illegal under British law and machines began to replace and automate many worker processes, while employees found they can no longer offer special skills to offer employers; employee striking was also viewed as criminality to disrupt trade.  Around the same time, the Toronto Printers Union has been lobbying for a shorter workweek, which was inspired by workers in Ontario, Hamilton that that started a moment for a nine-hour work week.  The members of the Toronto Printer Union were imprisoned for striking to campaign for a nine-hour working day.2  Despite the imprisonment and illegal unions, the Toronto Trade Assembly encouraged workers to form trade unions and over time public support grew and authorities could no longer deny the important role that unions played for worker rights and for safety.

In 1883, Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John Macdonald passed a bill to repeal all Canadian laws against trade unions.3  Labour Day in Canada was originally celebrated in the spring, but it was moved to the fall after 1894 after Prime Minister Sir John Thompson declared Labour Day a national holiday and celebrates workers’ rights during parades and picnics organized by trade unions.4

FUN FACT: Did you know that prior to Labour Day, North America’s standard workday in the 1840s was 10 to 12-hours and a 6-day work week?5

Read more of the History of Workplace Safety on our previous blog post. 

Labor Day in the United States is held on the same day, and Canadian trade unions are proud that this holiday was inspired to celebrate and improve workers’ rights and safety. A lot has happened since then and in honor of the 125th anniversary of Labour Day in Canada here are some of the unforgettable recent events in the history of safety in Canada: 

1964: The Industrial Safety Act

In 1964 “Safety” is defined as “freedom from injury to the body or freedom from damage to health.”  The Industrial Safety Act is introduced and replaces Factory, Shop and Office Building Act where employers are now required to take such precautions to ensure worker safety.  In 1971 the Act was revisited and responsibility for safety is given to the supervisor and the worker.6 

CONTINUE READING:  COVID-19: Working from Home Tips From Staff At SafetyLine Lone Worker, Part 1

1978: Occupational Health and Safety Act (Bill 70)

Existing occupational health and safety legislation, the Construction Safety Act, the Mining Act, the Employees Health and Safety Act, and the Industrial Safety Act are all combined into one statute to be developed as the Occupational Health and Safety Act.7  The act provides for health and safety committees, refusal to work and the regulation of toxic substances. 8 

1998: Workers’ Compensation Reform Act (Bill 99)

On January 1st, 1998 the Workers’ Compensation Act renamed to Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) with new responsibility for occupational injury and illness prevention and the promotion of occupational health and safety. 9 

2004: Code of Liabilities for Corporations (Bill C-45)

The bill became law on March 31st, 2004 that amended the Canadian Criminal Code that imposes criminal liability for occupational health and safety violations resulting in injury or death. The bill allows for criminal prosecution of organizations, including corporations, their representatives and those who have authority to direct the work of others. 10 

2004: Working Alone Regulations

Many provinces in Canada have safety regulations for Working Alone or in Isolation.  Failure to comply with Work Alone Regulations could result in increased Workers’ Compensation Board premiums, fines, legal action or even criminal charges for either an organization or an individual liable.  To learn more about work alone regulations in Canada visit our Regulations page.

2009: Workplace violence (Bill 168)

Ontario passes Bill 168 on April 2009 a legislation amending the Occupational Health and Safety Act to include provisions for the prevention of workplace violence and harassment. Under Bill 168, employers must devise workplace violence and harassment policies, develop programs to implement such policies, and engage in assessments to measure the risk of workplace violence.11 

2010: Confined Space

The Canadian Standards Association relapses national standard on managing work in confined spaces.  CSA Z1006 is a voluntary standard that defines best practices for confined space work and was developed with input from industry sectors such as energy and mining. 12 


  1. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/labour-day 
  2. https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/canada/labour-day 
  3. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/labour-day 
  4. https://www.canadashistory.ca/explore/politics-law/the-first-labour-day 
  5. https://www.timesizing.com/history-of-the-american-workweek/ 
  6. https://studylib.net/doc/8296099/history-of-occupational-health-and-safety-legislation-in-on… 
  7. https://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/hs/faqs/molrole.php 
  8. https://www.ola.org/en/legislative-business/bills/parliament-37/session-3/bill-70 
  9. https://studylib.net/doc/8296099/history-of-occupational-health-and-safety-legislation-in-on… 
  10. https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/legisl/billc45.html 
  11. https://marcomm.mccarthy.ca/pubs/bill_168_paperseminar_feb2010.pdf 
  12. https://www.cos-mag.com/personal-process-safety/29471-evolution-of-health-and-safety-in-the-last-50-years/ 

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