Celebrating Labour Day in Guelph

Early Labour Day Celebrations

On the first Monday in September, Canada celebrates Labour Day. This began when the government designated it as a workers’ holiday in 1894.  In Guelph, the current mode of celebration is a Labour Day Picnic. This has not always been the case since the city’s first Labour Day celebrations took place on September 1, 1902. 

Organization and Co-operation 

The Labour Day parade of 1904 indicates the depth of involvement and the extent of external support that the GTLC was able to elicit from other regional locals. The weather was described as “delightful” and the Guelph “moulders, as always, made a strong showing,” but that year’s favoured group was the Bell Piano and Organ Workers with their very “natty appearance.

Floats were provided by several companies and music was supplied by various bands. Berlin’s (Kitchener) Local No. 20 of the Amalgamated Woodworker’s International Union marched in the parade, as did 15 men from the Berlin Local Brotherhood of Painter, Paperhangers, and Decorators of North America. Unlike in 1902, women were not found in the procession. According to one account, the women did not wish to be displayed in public processions. Even if they had chosen to be part of the event, they would not have been allowed to walk. Women in Guelph, as was the case across Canada, would have been required to ride.

Guelph’s First Labour Day Parade

On that bright sunny day, 600 members – including several women, actively took part, while 3,000 citizens were found on the grounds. Labour Day events lasted all day, starting early in the morning with a greasy pole challenge near City Hall. At 9:30 a.m., the unions assembled in Market Square, joined soon by bands, some representing the local factories. The procession wound its way, circularly, from Market Square as far as Woolwich and back, where the floats were then judged for prizes. In the afternoon, sporting games and events took place in Exhibition Park followed, in the evening, by a band concert.

The event was successful. It reflected the ability of Guelph’s young labour council – the Guelph Trade and Labour Council (GTLC) to galvanize its members and the community into creating a memorable Labour Day celebration. Such an achievement was built on the realization by workers that Labour Day presented them with a chance to demonstrate to the public what they stood for and who they were.  

The Triumvirate

Cooperation among councils and regional unions was key to creating a successful event. Guelph union men reciprocated this support from other councils by attending parades in their cities. The usual partners were 

               Berlin                                       Galt                                   Brantford.

In 1906, three of these communities, Guelph, Galt and Brantford, combined their efforts in the creation of a joint and rotating celebration. Each year, one of the three cities would act as host. The rationale was that a larger and better demonstration would result, and this would be “more beneficial to labour.” 

As a result, in 1905, Berlin hosted the event, and then the “Big Three” took over. Labour Day was celebrated in Guelph in 1906, Brantford in 1907, Galt in 1908 and Guelph in 1909.

The big addition in 1906 was a “Baby Show.” The attendance of regional union groups for that year was also wider. Members of Galt, Elmira,  Hespeler and Brantford unions walked in the Trade Procession that wound its way in a circular route from Carden Street and back to the Market Square.

Four years later, the Labour Day Parade was put together in Guelph by the Moulders’ Union. The GTLC did not have the time that year since they were hosting the annual conference of the National Labour Congress. This parade, like all the others, was declared a success by all who attended. It was to continue to remain popular and well-attended until World War I changed everything.