Today, April 28th, 2021, we mark the annual Day of Mourning with virtual ceremonies for Toronto and York Region. It is a sombre occasion, honouring workers who have been killed or injured at work or suffered from occupational disease.
This day was initiated by Canadian Labour Congress 1985, as unions struggled against recalcitrant employers and politicians who refused, despite the cost in human lives, to challenge business conduct. As we move into the third wave of the COVID pandemic, the issue of workers’ health is hitting the front page once again. Sadly, what we learned over decades of safety activism about the application of the Precautionary Principle has been ignored too long. Ontario continues to prioritize business interests over public health.
This date was originally chosen to mark April 28, 1914 when the first workers compensation act was won in Ontario. Unions have organized across the world to proclaim the date, and today it is recognized in more than 100 countries. For us, there is nothing neutral about the Day of Mourning. We may be joined by political leaders at our events, but the date honours the legacy of decades of intense worker mobilization around workplace health and safety in the face of employer resistance.
The Hoggs Hollow tunnel disaster of 1960 sparked a massive uprising by the Italian immigrant community; Toronto labour leader Gerry Gallagher led a series of walkouts to protest unsafe conditions in construction; Steelworkers went on strike to force a full inquiry into uranium mining at Elliot Lake; aircraft workers in Toronto and Malton walked off the job over the use of toxic chemicals in the workplace, and office workers warned of exposure to early video display terminals and repetitive strain injuries.
After years of denial, the truth about asbestos came out and the word “mesothelioma” was introduced into our vocabulary. But it took years more before the Canadian government would ban the use of asbestos. Union safety activists partnered with medical professionals to uncover the terrible impact of carcinogens, while year after year, employers resisted changing their operations or the materials in their products, Finally, in 1976 Ontario workers won the right to refuse unsafe work, and in 1987 the right to know about hazardous material was put into law. But the mobilization for safe work continued.
In 1990, on April 28th, downtown construction sites were shut as building trades members rallied at the Chinese Railway Workers Monument to demand the passage of stronger safety legislation, winning effective representation and new workplace rights. In 2003, the Labour Council’s Day of Mourning Ceremony returned to that location to challenge the anti-Asian prejudice that had arisen in the midst of the SARS epidemic. In 2010, the Toronto Day of Mourning highlighted the Metron Swingstage tragedy which killed four immigrant workers on the previous Christmas Eve. The demand to press charges for criminal negligence resulted in the first jail sentence of a company director in Canadian history. In 2016, a new monument to Italian Fallen Workers was christened at the Columbus Centre with over a thousand names inscribed, and many more quickly added.
In the year 2021, April 28th focuses on the impact of COVID – the lives lost, the failure of the Conservative government to implement effective policies, and their refusal to legislate paid sick days. It will also acknowledge the impact of systemic racism on peoples’ safety and health, whether through poor working conditions, precarious jobs or hate crimes such as the nooses found on construction sites.
Health and safety has been a priority for Toronto’s labour movement throughout our 150 year history. Workers’ rights to challenge unhealthy conditions - or to have safety laws enforced - were only won through tough struggles and patient organizing. They were never granted through the benevolence of those with economic or political power. And as COVID rages on, and the gig economy creates new digital “fissured workplaces”, the need for new measures to empower workers is apparent.
Labour’s motto on April 28th draws from the resolve we have learned over many generations. We pledge to Mourn for the Dead, and to continue to fight like hell for the Living!