We’ve come a long way in the past 150 years. In 1867 it was a crime to be a member of a union — a law that changed when workers went on strike to (gasp) reduce their workweek to 58 hours, a far cry from today’s standard workweek of 40 to 44 hours.
Thankfully, workplace conditions have improved dramatically since that draconian period.
Important milestones in the work world include the right to fair wages, safe working conditions and compensation for injury, and equitable labour relations. Historically, Canada has been a leader when it comes to protecting workers, and our legislation has been imitated throughout the industrialized world.
Over the past 150 years, these landmark events have helped shape the Canadian workplace of today:
1867 Constitution Act
The Dominion of Canada is created.
1872 Trade Unions Act
The Toronto Typographical Union goes out on strike March 25, 1872, when its demands for a shorter workweek are ignored. A few weeks later, a parade is organized in Toronto to show support for the striking workers, with 10,000 people participating. People are arrested as union activity is a criminal act under Canadian law. The then prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, promises to repeal the “barbarous” anti-union laws. The Trade Unions Act is passed by Parliament on June 14, 1872, legalizing unions.
1894 Labour Day
In the years following the events of 1872, parades are organized in its honour. The celebration is officially recognized on July 23, 1894, when Prime Minister John Thompson makes Labour Day a national holiday.
1900s Child labour laws, late 19th and early 20th centuries
Attitudes toward child labour have altered dramatically since the late 18th century, when it was generally assumed that, after the age of seven, children would contribute economically to the family. Child labour, supplemented by immigrant children brought from Britain, reaches its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Child workers are often cruelly exploited, and job security and assistance in the event of illness, injury or death are nonexistent. In the beginning of the 20th century most provinces enact labour legislation to restrict the employment of children under the age of 15. By 1911 about 50% of 10- to 19-year-olds are in school. As the percentage of children attending school increases, the proportion of boys aged 14-19 who are gainfully employed drops from 68% in 1921 to 40% in 1961.
1914 Workman’s Compensation Act
Prior to this legislation, the only recourse for employees injured on the job was to sue their employers for damages, but as lawsuits increase, employers turn to the government seeking an insurance plan for industrial accidents. Ontario becomes the first province in Canada to introduce a state social insurance plan with the Workmen’s Compensation Act, and a trade-off is introduced where workers give up their right to sue in exchange for compensation.
1919 Labour Legislation
The Ministry of Ontario develops and enforces labour legislation including the key areas of occupational health and safety, employment rights and responsibilities, and labour relations.
1929 Women become “persons.”
In 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada rules that women are not “persons” under the British North America Act. A group of women — The Famous Five — appeal to the Privy Council of England, leading to a stunning reversal of the court’s decision as women are declared persons, a first step toward women’s increasing participation in the workforce.
1971 Occupational Health Act
Saskatchewan passes the Occupational Health Act, considered the first legislation of its kind in North America. Other provinces soon follow. The act makes health and safety the joint responsibility of management and workers, enshrining three important rights for workers:
- The right to know about hazards and dangers in the workplace;
- The right to participate in health and safety issues through a workplace committee;
- The right to refuse unsafe work.
1986 Employment Equity Act (EEA)
This federal act further protects the working rights of the four “designated groups” named in The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms enacted in 1982: women, people with disabilities, Aboriginal people and visible minorities.
2013 National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace
The first of its kind in the world, these voluntary guidelines are intended to guide organizations in promoting mental health and preventing psychological harm at work.