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Day of Mourning

Mourn For The Dead; Fight For The Living

In 1907, 13 employees working at Taylor-Forbes in Guelph suffered a variety of injuries. That was a banner year for accidents. They ranged from severe burns to the feet and legs to broken jaws to crushed and/or amputated fingers. Fortunately, none of the injuries proved to be fatal.

This was not the case a year earlier when John McLennan had fallen to his death into a vat of boiling oil. That year, 1906, however, the company had listed only 5 accidents – a figure that was to fluctuate throughout the first 10 years of its operation.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, accidents were an accepted component of the job – according to both the law and the employers.  The workers, of course, felt differently. They fought hard to reform the present system. United under the unions and labour councils, Guelph workers were able to finally make their demands for a safe working environment not only heard but also, eventually, incorporated into a series of workplace laws.

This included the passage of the Workers’ Compensation Act in 1914 on April 28. Until then, employees had to face their employers in court. This was a very expensive proposition – one few workers, their families or friends could afford. It was also one marked by a bias in favour of the employers. Repeatedly, judges found the worker to be at fault. If nothing else, the explanation for a worker’s tragic accidence or demise was dismissed with the words. “You knew the work was dangerous when you accepted the job.”

Unfortunately, while much has improved, too many workplace accidents occur – every day across Canada to the tune of 2.5 deaths per day. In honour of their deaths, as a memorial and as a reminder to everyone how the fight for workplace safety is not over, workers gather on April 28 in a day of remembrance. This is the Day of Mourning.

History of the Day of Mourning

The Day of Mourning was launched in Canada in 1984 by CUPE. The torch was then taken up by the Canadian Labour Congress in 1985. The Canadian Government officially recognized the day in 1991 by passing the Workers Mourning Day Act. On this day, the flag on Parliament Hill flies at half-mast to recognize the tragic and unnecessary loss of workers’ lives. Flags that are on other Federal Government buildings also follow suit. Public events, such as the ones taking place annually in Guelph on the University of Guelph Campus and at Goldie Mill, occur across Canada and in as many as 100 countries worldwide.

In the United States, workers honour their dead and injured on Workers’ Memorial Day. This event of recognition was instituted in 1970 in the United States by the AFL-CIO.

A day to honour those who have lost their lives or been injured – physically or mentally on the job also made its way to the UK. There, championed by Tommy Harte, Workers’ Memorial Day became as it is now a day to “Remember the Dead: Fight for the Living.”

On April 28, whether you are working or at home, take time to remember the dead. It is not necessary to lay wreathes, plant trees, release balloons or layout empty shoes to recognize the great loss everyone should feel. Everyone loses when someone dies in a workplace or from some serious workplace-related illness. Numbers, no matter how small, do not show the true cost of workplace deaths. They do not reveal who has been directly and indirectly harmed by the loss of a single life. When you stop and think of them, mourn for the loss to the family, for the bereaved friends and for a province and a nation that needs to learn how to better take care of its people.


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