Another Labour Day long weekend will soon be upon us. It is often regarded as the unofficial end of summer. For many, it is often the last holiday before the start of school.
Labour Day is also one the oldest of Canada’s national statutory holidays. On July 23, 1894, the Conservative Government of Sir John Sparrow Thompson made the first Monday in September into a nation-wide public holiday.
For much of its early history, there was little labour union activity in Red Deer. Because the Calgary-Edmonton Railway (C.P.R.) was the biggest employer in the community, the railway workers union was the first and most prominent union. There was also generally good public support for that union because so many people belonged to it or had some sort of family or personal connection with a member.
In the spring of 1900, the railway workers went on strike, mainly for higher pay. They wanted their salaries raised to $60 to $65 per month, with those being paid by the day getting $1.65. For those who relied on the Company for their accommodations, they wanted their boarding charges to be capped at $4 per week.
The local newspaper correspondent pointed out that the Calgary-Edmonton line was the most profitable of any Canadian railway of equal mileage. He also wrote “under present conditions the public is extremely inconvenienced and business is paralyzed. If this Railway cannot pay men a living wage, perhaps the Government should increase the $80 million a year mail subsidy and help them out.”
Despite the prominence and general popularity of the rail union in Red Deer, Labour Day almost always passed without any kind of community events or ceremonies. Another reporter later wrote “it is unusual to have anything in the way of sports going on in Red Deer on Labour Day. Most citizens make arrangements to go away visiting friends or duck shooting etc.”
Finally, on September 1, 1913, the local Loyal Orange Lodge decided to organize a Labour Day event at the Red Deer Fairgrounds. A baseball game was arranged between Penhold and Red Deer. There were to be some other athletic events, principally foot races and a tug-of-war contest between a team made up of members of the Red Deer Citizens Band (the forerunner of the Red Deer Royals) and the local Orange Lodge.
The organizers did not expect a large turnout for the events, but were pleasantly surprised when “quite a nice crowd” showed up. The afternoon opened with the usual short speeches of greeting from such dignitaries as Mayor Francis Galbraith and Alderman William Piper. Rev. W.G. Brown of the Presbyterians and Rev. John Bennett of the local Baptists provided the invocations and short religious addresses.
Edward Michener, the local M.L.A., was supposed to be in attendance, but was unable to attend at the last minute. Consequently, a telegram of greetings was read out on his behalf.
A large picnic lunch was served in one the exhibition buildings on the grounds. The sports events then commenced. Red Deer beat Penhold in the baseball game by a score of 16 to 6. The Orangemen easily beat the Band members in tug-of-war. Considerable interest was also shown in a contest for “most popular lady” with a gold watch being the prize.
After a supper was served, the day concluded with a concert by the Citizens’ Band. While news reports conceded that the event had “not been great from a numerical standpoint”, everyone who did turn out said that they had an enjoyable time. There was a hope that the 1914 event would be better attended. Tragically, the First World War broke out that summer. No Labour Day picnic or sporting event was held as all attention had turned to the War effort.
Michael Dawe is a Red Deer Historian. His column appears on Wednesdays.