Ottawa’s First Labour Day

1 September 1890

In Canada, Labour Day, held on the first Monday of September, is the fourth and last statutory holiday of the summer season—for Ontarians, after Victoria Day in late May, Canada Day on July 1st and the Civic holiday in early August.  As such, it also informally marks the end of summer with most kids, those in French school boards being the big exception, heading back to class on the following Tuesday. It is typically a day for family leisure activities—a last dip in the lake before heading home, a barbecue in the backyard or in a park, or a trip to the cinema to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster.  In bygone years, however, the holiday had a deeper significance. Its purpose was to celebrate the achievements of workers, especially those of organized labour.

Some historians contend that Labour Day celebrations had their origins in the parades and demonstrations held in support of a nine-hour work-week during the early 1870s, like the ones organized in Hamilton and Toronto in 1872. Two American men are believed to have first conceived the idea of a statutory holiday in honour of the “labouring classes”—Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, and Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labour Union of New York. Both men appeared in the first US Labor Day parade held in New York on 5 September 1882.

Here is Canada, organized labour with links to US unions, such as the Knights of Labor, began to lobby for similar workers’ celebrations and the creation of a workers’ holiday. They received official support in 1889 with the report of the Royal Commission on the Relations between Labour and Capital that recommended the establishment of a statutory holiday throughout Canada to be known as Labour Day.

Ottawa celebrated its first official Labour Day on Monday, 1 September 1890, a day that Mayor Erratt declared a municipal holiday. The Ottawa Journal indicated that this was not only a first for Ottawa, but “the first holiday of this kind in this country.” The capital’s trade unions were enthusiastic participants. All participated in the morning parade, some sporting their union badges and most likely dressed in their Sunday best. However, members of the Typographical Union voted down a resolution in favour of its members wearing “plug” hats in the parade. Plug hats were formal wear, such as bowler and top hats. It is likely that such heard gear was rejected on class grounds; they were not suitable for a parade in honour of the working classes. The afternoon was devoted to a picnic, dancing, and athletic events.

Not all people were keen participants in the Labour Day events. In the lead-up to the holiday, one alderman at city hall grumbled about firemen participating in the parade, arguing that they were there to put out fires, not parade in streets. Chief McVeity, the head of the Ottawa Police Department, objected to his department participating in a tug-of-war contest with their Dominion Police Force counterparts. At the last moment, a substitute tug-of-war contest between the Ottawa and Hull Fire Departments was arranged.

Advertisement, Ottawa Journal, 26 August 1890.

The organized events were a very masculine affair. There is no reference to women participating in the parade. The Ottawa Journal did note that there would be “plentiful provisions” for the care of the wives of union members and their families. Women also didn’t participate in the afternoon sporting contests either. Instead, they were invited to a needle-threading contest—how many needles could they thread in five minutes.

Monday, 1 September 1890 dawned a perfect day. Many homes and businesses were decorated for the event. Canadian, British, French and US flags flew along the parade route. While the Mayor had declared the day to be a holiday, not all firms were closed for the full day. Bryson, Graham & Company, the big, retail store on Sparks Street, held a mammoth “Trades and Labour Sale” from 7:00am to 1:00pm on that first Labour Day. It did close for the afternoon to allow its employees to participate in the scheduled athletic events.

Union members participating in the big parade were encourage to get to the union offices early in preparation for the walk to Cartier Square where the parade marshals would assign them their position in the procession, scheduled to depart at 8:15 am sharp. The order of the route took parade participants from Cartier Square at Maria Street (now Laurier Avenue) to Nicholas Street, into the Byward Market area, to St. Patrick Street, along Sussex Street, back to Rideau, then to Sparks Street, to Bank, Wellington and Lyon Streets, before returning to Cartier Square, via Sparks, Bank, and Maria Streets.

The Labour Day Procession was as follows:

First Division

Grand Marshal

Governor General’s Foot Guard’s Band

Deputy Grand Marshal

Standard Bearer

Capital Assembly—Knights of Labor

Carpenters’ Union

Ottawa Typographical Union

Pressmen’s Union No. 5

Bookbinders’ Union

Brick Layers’ and Masons Union

Second Division

Deputy Grand Marshal

Barrett’s Band

General Labourers’ Union

Plasterers’ Union

Frontenac Assembly—Knights of Labor

Painters’ Union

Ottawa Assembly (Plumbers’ Union)—Knights of Labor

Rideau Assembly (Cabinet Makers)—Knights of Labor

General Trades

Contractors’ Association of Ottawa

Trade and Labour Council

Third Division

Deputy Grand Marshal

La Lyre Canadienne

Ottawa Fire Brigade, including steamer “Conqueror,” extension ladder truck, hook & ladder truck, and different reels

Butchers’ Union (mounted)

Hackmen’s Union with visiting dignitaries, including Mayor Erratt

Roughly two thousand men marched in the parade which took almost a half hour to pass a given spot on the route. Of all the marchers, the Pressmen were stood out as they carried Japanese parasols. The also sported buttonhole bouquets and silver badges. As well, the men printed handbills, which they distributed to the crowds of well-wishers watching the parade, using a small Gordon job press.

In the afternoon there were an athletic competition and a dance at Lansdowne Park. More than five thousand people attended with the grand stand overflowing. Music was provided by the McGillicuddy’s Orchestra. Those who didn’t want to dance could visit an art show also held at Lansdowne Park.

Route of the 1890 Labour Day Procession

The sporting events were very popular. There were foot faces, hackman races, bicycle races, a butchers’ cart race, a lacrosse ball throwing contest and, as noted earlier, a tug of war contest between the Ottawa and Hull fire brigades. For those who were wondering about the needle-threading contest, sixty-three women entered the event with Miss O’Neill emerging victorious, having threaded 35 needles in five minutes. Miss Raney and Miss O’Meara were tied for second place with 31 needles. In the tie breaker, Miss Raney won with 39 needles threaded in five minutes.

The finale of the sporting events was the greasy pig contest. In the midst of a mob of several hundred men, a greased pig was released. Whoever caught it, kept it. After a long struggle, the terrified porker was finally captured by a French-speaking man. However, the battle was not yet over. More than thirty policemen had to intervene to stop a fight and to permit the winner to make off with his prize.

The first Labour Day was considered to be a great success. According to the Ottawa Journal, men of every nationality, creed, political party and social class participated harmoniously in the parade “on the basis of fraternity, mutual assistance and dependence.” The Ottawa Citizen said that “Ottawa had ever reason to be proud.” Its labour organizations showed that they were “second to none in their enthusiasm, pride in their various callings, and their numerical strength.” The newspaper heartily thanked the organizers of the day’s events.

In 1894, the government of Conservative Prime Minister John Thompson officially made the first Monday in the month of September a statutory holiday called “Labour Day.” The Act of Parliament received Royal Assent just days after a similar bill in the United States was signed by President Grover Cleveland.


Ottawa Citizen, 1890. “A Grand Demonstration.” 2 September.

——————, 1890. “Labour Has A Holiday,” 2 September.

Ottawa Journal, 1890. “Laborers Organized,” 30 July.

——————-, 1890. “Labor Day,” 18 August.

——————-, 1890. “The Labor Day Procession,” 25 August.

——————-, 1890. “The Labor Day Parade,” 26 August.

——————-, 1890. “Labor Day Arrangements,” 26 August.

——————, 1890. “Labor Day, » 30 August.

——————, 1890. “Ottawa’s First Labor Day,” 2 September.

——————, 1890. “Labor’s Great Day,” 2 September.

——————, 1890. “The Sports and Races,” 2 September.

Royal Commission, 1889. Report of the Royal Commission on the Relations Between Labor and Capital in Canada.

US Department of Labor, 2022. History of Labor Day.

First Royal Visit–Prince of Wales Lays Cornerstone of Parliament

1 September 1860

In May 1859, the Legislature of the Province of Canada invited Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert to come to British North America “to witness the progress and prosperity of this distant part of your dominions.” Specifically, the Legislature hoped that the Queen would officially open the Victoria Bridge (le pont Victoria), the first bridge to span the St Lawrence River, which joined Montreal on the north shore with St Lambert on the south shore, that was nearing completion. The visit would also “afford the opportunity the inhabitants [of the Province of Canada] of uniting in their expression of loyalty and attachment to the Throne and Empire.”

Queen Victoria regretfully declined the invitation, saying that “her duties at the seat of Empire prevent so long an absence.” Transatlantic travel in the mid nineteenth century was still an arduous journey, taking two weeks or longer, even if the weather was favourable. Instead, she offered to send her eldest son, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales. It would be a “coming out” event for the nineteen-year old prince who would later become King Edward VII. Her suggestion was enthusiastically embraced. On hearing that the prince would be visiting British North America, U.S. President Buchanan invited him to tour the United States as well.

The extended North American tour took the young prince to all the major cities of the British colonies of North America, as well as to the major cities of the United States as far west as St Louis, Missouri. The prince’s tour naturally included Ottawa, the city selected by his mother to be the new capital of the United Province of Canada in 1857. Fortuitously, construction of the new Parliamentary buildings had commenced at the end of 1859, and the prince was invited to lay the cornerstone of the Legislature building while he was in the city.

HMS Hero
HMS Hero, Ship that brought the Prince of Wales to North America, 1860, anonymous, Source: Edward VII, His Life and Times

The Prince of Wales departed England for North America on 10 July 1860 on board HMS Hero, a 91-gun, screw and sail powered ship of the line, accompanied by HMS Ariadne, a wooden, screw frigate, and was met in Newfoundland by the screw steam sloop HMB Flying Fish. On board the Hero was  a true hero–William Hall. The son of a slave who had escaped to Canada during the War of 1812, Hall, was the first Canadian seaman and the first black man to receive the Victoria Cross for gallantry. He received the honour for heroism at the siege of Lucknow in 1857 during the Indian Mutiny.

The Prince and his entourage arrived in St John’s during the evening of 23 July, after having encountered heavy seas and dense fog on the crossing. Although the Newfoundland government knew roughly when the prince’s would arrive, his ship’s entrance through the Narrows caught people by surprise; ship-to-shore telegraph communications was still in the distant future. That night, the city hastily finished erecting ceremonial arches made of evergreens, and put up flags and bunting, in preparation for the prince’s official landing the next morning.

Over the following month, the prince made his way across the Atlantic colonies with considerable pomp and ceremony. After St John’s, he visited Halifax, St John, Fredericton, and Charlottetown, before the royal squadron left for the Province of Canada. It arrived in Canadian waters on 13 August where it was met by the Governor General, Sir Edmund Head, and members of the Canadian government on board two Canadian steamers in the mouth of the St Lawrence River. The flotilla reached Quebec City on 18 August. The first major event was a reception at Parliament House where he was greeted by the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly. The prince then knighted the speakers of the two houses of Parliament. He subsequently visited Trois Rivières and then Montreal, where he officially opened le pont Victoria, laying the cornerstone to the entrance to the bridge as well as setting in place a ceremonial “last rivet.” In truth, the bridge, the longest in the world at the time, had been completed the previous year, and was already open for rail traffic.

After a tour of the Eastern Townships, Prince Edward proceeded from Montreal to Ottawa on 31 August. As there was no direct train link, he travelled by way of a special train to Ste Anne-De-Bellevue, followed by boat trip to Carillion, another train ride to Grenville, where he picked up the steamer Phoenix for the last stage of his journey up the Ottawa River. He arrived in Ottawa at 7pm to be met by an armada of one hundred and fifty canoes paddled by several hundred lumbermen dressed in white trousers and red shirts with blue facing. The canoes, flying banners, escorted the steamer the last two miles to the Ottawa wharf. When the Phoenix rounded the Rockcliffe promontory, the Ottawa Field Battery fired a royal salute.

Little Ottawa, with a population of less than 15,000 people, was abuzz with excitement. Nothing like this had ever happened in the rough-and-tumble lumber town. Bunting and flags bedecked every home and office building. Ceremonial arches were built along the route to be taken by the prince and his party through the city. One such arch, spanning Spark’s Street near the Bate building, was constructed of evergreens, interspersed with heraldic shields, mottos, and 60 foot towers. It was topped by two immense urns of flowers and a huge statue of the goddess Minerva clad in armour.

Triumphal Arch at 113-114 Sparks Street, 1860, Library and Archives Canada, C-002183.

In front of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, “four chaste and elegant towers” were erected across Wellington Street “draped and festooned at their caps with cornucopias of flowers, royal standards, shields, and various other appropriate devices.” At the Ottawa end of the Union Suspension Bridge (where today’s Chaudière Bridge stands) to Hull was a massive wooden arch made of 180,000 feet of sawn lumber assembled without a single nail. The wood, worth $3,000, a huge sum in those days, was provided by the company Perley, Pattee & Brown. The suspension bridge itself was decorated with transparencies of the Queen, the Prince Consort, and the Prince of Wales which were illuminated after dusk. Similarly, Sappers’ Bridge, which connected Lower Town and Upper Town, was festooned with hundreds of Chinese lanterns. The Ottawa Citizen commented that “Ottawa appeared lovely and anxious as a bride awaiting the arrival of the bride-groom to complete her joy.”

Lumbermen's Arch 1860 Elihu Spencer LAC PA-099734
Lumbermen’s Arch Built for the Prince of Wales’s Visit to Ottawa, 1860, Elihu Spencer/Library and Archives Canada, PA-099734.

Unfortunately, the start to the prince’s Ottawa visit was marred by a torrential rain shower just as Mayor Alexander Workman, dressed in his robes of office, commenced his dock-side welcome speech. While he soldiered on despite the soaking, the thousands of onlookers scattered for cover. After the prince thanked the mayor, he and his entourage were taken by carriage to the Victoria House Hotel at the corner of Wellington and O’Connor Streets. In their wake followed a somewhat bedraggled parade of soldiers, firemen, and government employees.

But the next day was bright and sunny for the laying of Parliament’s cornerstone. At 11am, the prince, followed by the Governor General, members of the prince’s party, Canadian Cabinet ministers dressed in blue and gold, and other dignitaries, entered the Parliamentary grounds through yet another triumphal arch; this one decorated in a Gothic style. The cornerstone ceremony was held on a dais under an elaborate canopy, surrounded by wooden bleachers to allow several thousand Ottawa citizens to view the proceedings. Following prayers offered by the chaplain to the Legislative Council, the prince approached the white Canadian marble stone. It bore the inscription This corner stone of the building intended to receive The Legislature of Canada was laid by Albert Edward, The Prince of Wales, on the first day of September MDCCCLX. The stone was suspended from a pulley above a Nepean limestone block in which there was a cavity. Into the cavity was placed a glass bottle containing a parchment scroll detailing the cornerstone ceremony and the names of the day’s participants. A collection of British and Canadian coins were also placed in the hole. The clerk of the works then supervised the laying of mortar, with the prince providing the last touch with a silver trowel engraved with a picture of the Parliament buildings. After the cornerstone was lowered into position, the prince tapped the stone three times. Following more prayers, and after officials had checked the stone with a plumb in the shape of a harp, and a level held by a lion and unicorn, the prince declared the stone to have been well and truly laid. At the end of the ceremony, Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones of Toronto and Thomas Stent and Augustus Lever of Ottawa, the architects of the three Parliament buildings under construction, were presented to the prince. The royal party then went to view a three-dimensional model of the future library made by Charles Emil Zollikofer, a Swedish-born sculptor.

Cornerstone  Laying Ceremony
The Prince of Wales Lays the Cornerstone of Parliament, 1 September 1860, City of Ottawa Archives.

After a lunch hosted by the legislature in a wooden building on the Parliamentary grounds, the afternoon was taken up with fun and games. After the prince and his entourage had toured the city on horseback to admire the city’s decorations and the many triumphal arches erected for the occasion, they were taken to the Chaudière Falls for a singular Ottawa experience—a ride down the Government log slide used to send wood down river to avoid the falls. Two cribs of timber had been constructed to accommodate the royal party and journalists. Cheered by thousands who stood on the shore or on the many bridges over the slide, the prince shot through it to be met by hundreds of canoes mid river. While the two cribs descended without incident, the Ottawa Citizen reported that “the visages of some of the occupants of the cribs were considerable elongated on descending the first shoot.” A regatta with several canoe races followed.

The evening was marked by a very curious event—a mounted torchlight procession of “physiocarnivalogicalists” to the residence of the Prince of Wales. The members of this obscure order, who billed themselves as “the tribes of Allobrentio Forgissario,” were dressed in some sort of costume. The procession was the source of considerable amusement on the part of onlookers. On reaching the prince’s residence, the group raised a loud cheer, which the prince acknowledged through the window, before they dispersed.

After Sunday services at Christ Church (the predecessor of the current Anglican cathedral) the following morning, the prince visited Rideau Hall, the home of John McKay, the noted New Edinburgh lumber baron, and toured its magnificent grounds. Five years later, the Canadian government leased the mansion for the home of the Governor General; it purchased the home in 1868.

At 8am, Monday, 3 September, the prince and his party, escorted by the Durnham Light Infantry, left Ottawa for Brockville, the next stop on the Canadian leg of his North American tour, via Alymer, Chats, and Arnprior. He did not get back to Britain until the middle of November.

Fifty-six years to the day after the Prince of Wales had laid the cornerstone, his brother, the Duke of Connaught, re-laid it as the cornerstone of the new Parliament Building that replaced the original building, gutted in a mysterious fire in February 1916.


Cellem, Robert, 1861. Visit Of His Royal Highness The Prince Of Wales To The British American Provinces And United States In The Year 1860, Henry Rowsell: Toronto.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1860. “Preparing To Receive The Prince! The Council & Citizens At Work!” 18 August.

———————–, 1860. “On Preparations To Receive H.R.H. The Prince of Wales,” 1 September.

————————, 1860. “The Prince in Ottawa,” 8 September.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1972. “Royal Nay hero was slave’s son,” 15 November.

Images: HMS Hero, anonymous, From Edward VII His Life and Times, published 1910.

Cornerstone Laying Ceremony, 1860, City of Ottawa Archives,

Lumbermen’s Arch, Illustrated London News,