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Guelph’s First Labour Day Parade


On the first Monday in September, Canada celebrates Labour Day the only statutory holiday created to celebrate the rights and interests of a specific group – the Working Class. Although parades had marked the rise of unions and trade interests since the early 1800s, serious lobbying for a single day begun in the mid-1880s under various Canadian Labour groups did not bear fruit until 1894.

 The new legislation legitimized the event on a countrywide scale. It became an acceptable part of society’s calendar of events. Cities and the middle class began to embrace the concept, feeling the event was now respectable entertainment. As Craig Heron and Steve Penfold point out in their book The Workers’ Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada, respectability was an integral component of such demonstrations. It did not matter whether the event took place in Winnipeg or Saint John NB, the trades presented themselves in an orderly fashion, their dress tidy, crisp and clean – completely respectable people.

The First Labour Day Celebrations

In 1894, London, Ontario, held a massive parade with around 3,000 workers converging on the city’s Market Square. The procession of unions included marchers and floats. Butchers, firemen and barbers marched proudly in formation. The printers sported navy blue yachting caps while the butchers, who came first riding horses, illustrated their trade and propriety with crisp white shirts and hats. They also carried immaculate baskets to illustrate their trade.

In Winnipeg, the parade stretched out 5 kilometres. In Saint John, NB, the local trade unions – who had been marching in parades since around 1839, presented the biggest salute to workers in the Maritime Provinces. The St. John Globe stated, “The demonstration of the trades and workingmen was a remarkably fine one, a splendid exhibit of a strong portion of the working forces of the city…”

While Hamilton did not hold a Labour Day Parade in 1894, they did so in 1895. In 1896, the event brought, according to the Industrial Banner, “more visitors to the city than any single day entertainment held in years.” This was also the case for several other cities across the nation. However, in Guelph, the first Labour Day celebrations did not take place until September 1, 1902. Before this, they did what several small communities did – joined forces with other towns and cities to present one larger parade. In 1901, for example, they took part in the parade held in Berlin (Kitchener).

Guelph’s First Labour Day Parade: The Organizers

Guelph’s Trade and Labour Council organized the parade. The committee for this event included the following:  

    • Chairman: Wm. R. Watson 
    • Treasurer: Jos. Dandeno
    • Secretary: A.A. Anderson

The actual committee featured representatives from the various unions and organizations in Guelph, including

    •   Amalgamated Woodworkers International Union, Local 111 (143 members)
    •   Brussels Carpet Weavers
    •   International Brewery Workers of America Local 300
    •   International Journeymen Tailors Union of America, Local 297 (15 members)
    •   International Moulders Union Local 212 (70 members)
    •   International Organ and Piano Workers Local 34 (14 members)
    •   International Textile Weavers Union, Brussels Carpet Weaver Workers Branch, Local 228 (12 members)
    •   International Textile Weavers Union, Ingrain Carpet Weavers Branch, Knitters, Spinners, Local 340
    •   International Typographical Union (Printers) Local 391 (20 members) Masons and Bricklayers Union (25 members)
    •  Journeymen Barbers’ International Union Local 310Painters and Decorators and Paperhangers Union #602 (25 members)
    •  Sheet Metal Workers 
    • Teamsters and Drivers Union #351 (32 members)
    •  Guelph Upholsterers Union (14 members)
    •  Wine Clerks Union Local #104 (20 members)

In addition to the committee members, all other Guelph unions contributed time, money and people. They made floats and encouraged all their members to attend.

 The Events

On that bright sunny day, 600 members actively participated – including several women, while 3,000 citizens followed the parade to the grounds at Exhibition Park. 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 – the women riding in cabs, joined soon by the 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.

Guelph’s First Labour Day Parade saw the city’s workers on display. In keeping with the times, the participants did their absolute best to present a positive and powerful presence of the city’s working class. They provided the town with a portrait of respectability in their orderly conduct and clean, crisp outfits.  The seventy members of the Iron Moulders Union were

uniformly dressed in black shirts and trousers. Black, soft felt hats, white ties, yellow belts and black shoes. Each man carried a rammer to illustrate the trade, and these were all carried in the same position, being varied by the different stages of the march. The parade showing was most appropriate.

The Federal Labour Union “presented a neat, stalwart appearance,” the Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers’ Union sported the “nattiest uniform of the bunch” and the Wine Clerks Union “presented a dressy appearance in white coats, dark trousers, white ties. And grey felt hats.

Only one union had women members. As was typical for the times, female workers did not walk. Instead, they rode in cabs. The female members of the International Textile Weavers Union, Ingrain Carpet Weavers Branch, Knitters, Spinners, Local 340, “were dressed in white, with purple sashes, with letters TWU in gold.” This was the only appearance by women in Guelph’s early Labour Day Parades. According to one account, the women did not take part in any further such demonstrations because they did not wish to be displayed in a public procession.

In addition to the marchers, the parade featured floats and bands. The Printers’ float had a printing press presided over by “ye ancient printer and a devil, Mephisto.” The Brewery Union (the first of its kind in Canada) had three floats showing their product in both bottles and barrels. The Carpet makers had a float with a display of carpets. In the end, first prize was awarded to the Bricklayers and Masons. They received the most points in the following areas:

  1. Float
  2. Uniforms
  3. Marching
  4. Numbers

Their three floats demonstrated stonecutters, masons and bricklayers at work. The display included both Galt and Guelph Members.

From the games and sporting events that followed in Exhibition Park to the overall atmosphere, little doubt remained about the local Trade & Labour Council’s ability to provide the public with an entertaining, yet informative event. By all recorded accounts, the event was a complete success.

Later Labour Days

The Guelph Labour Council held subsequent Labour Day Parades. In both 1904 and 1906, they hosted the event. However, for other Labour Days, they marched in the parades held by Galt, Berlin and Brantford. In 1912, the Iron Moulders Union had sole responsibility since the Labour Council was busy hosting the annual national convention by the Labour Congress.

Labour Day Parades continued sporadically during the Depression and War Years. On some occasions, the Veterans and Unions joined to present a unified and more jingoistic parade with contests for Miss War Worker and/or a Pet Parade. It was not until 1957 the Parade appeared to be making a comeback. This was short-lived. After 10 years, the event began to evolve into smaller offerings until, today, it continues as the Guelph and District Labour Council Picnic, held annually on Labour Day at Riverside Park.


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