The History behind April 28th, Canada’s National Day of Mourning

One of the original April 28th National Day of Mourning posters showing a canary singing in a cage, reminding us of the canaries used in the past in coal mines to detect hazardous gases.
Nation­al Day of Mourn­ing Poster

This post was writ­ten by Dorothy Wig­more, Occu­pa­tion­al health and green chem­istry spe­cial­ist, from Win­nipeg, Man­i­to­ba, and a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Pub­lic Health Asso­ci­a­tion (APHA)The arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the Spring 2010 Occu­pa­tion­al Health and Safe­ty Sec­tion Newslet­ter [1], and sub­se­quent­ly post­ed on the APHA web­site.

This arti­cle was pre­vi­ous­ly incor­rect­ly attrib­uted. Our sin­cere apolo­gies to Ms. Wig­more for this error. Our deep appre­ci­a­tion goes to her for per­mis­sion to reprint this arti­cle. Con­tact the author.


April 28 has many names. In Cana­da, it’s the Day of Mourn­ing. In the Unit­ed States and the Unit­ed King­dom, it’s Work­ers’ Memo­r­i­al Day. The Inter­na­tion­al Labour Orga­ni­za­tion calls it the World Day for Safe­ty and Health at Work. Marked around the world, there’s con­fu­sion about its ori­gins, even in Cana­da.

Around 1983, the health and safe­ty direc­tor of the Cana­di­an Union of Pub­lic Employ­ees (CUPE), Col­in Lam­bert, and his long-time friend and fel­low activist, Ray Sentes, came up with the idea of a day to rec­og­nize work­ers killed and injured on the job.

As a steel­work­er and min­er in Sud­bury, Ontario, Lam­bert was instru­men­tal in hav­ing manda­to­ry coro­ners’ inquests for all min­ers’ deaths in Ontario. He also lament­ed the con­trast between the lack of recog­ni­tion for min­ers and oth­er work­ers who died because of their work and the large pub­lic events for “fall­en” police offi­cers and fire­fight­ers.

Lam­bert “float­ed the idea” with CUPE’s nation­al health and safe­ty com­mit­tee, talk­ing about a spe­cial day of recog­ni­tion for work­ers killed and injured on the job, to be held on May 1 (cel­e­brat­ed as May Day in Europe and else­where). The com­mit­tee endorsed the idea. At its 1984 con­ven­tion, union del­e­gates sup­port­ed the pro­pos­al. Soon after, some CUPE locals start­ed nego­ti­at­ing events, such as low­ered flags and moments of silence.

In 1984 and 1985, CUPE rep­re­sen­ta­tives took the idea to the Cana­di­an Labour Con­gress (CLC) exec­u­tive and its nation­al health and safe­ty com­mit­tee. Local unions also sent res­o­lu­tions to the CLC.

In Feb­ru­ary 1986, the CLC announced the first Day of Mourn­ing, coin­cid­ing with the first day of its con­ven­tion that year. Rather than May 1, they chose the date when the Ontario leg­is­la­ture passed the country’s first work­ers com­pen­sa­tion law, in 1914. The con­ven­tion passed a res­o­lu­tion sup­port­ing April 28 as a day to “mourn for the dead and fight for the liv­ing.”

In 1990, Lam­bert and CUPE pushed for inno­v­a­tive ways to recog­nise the day. April 28 could be a “year-round series of pub­lic events”, not just a Day of Mourn­ing. We can attract “broad pub­lic recog­ni­tion for the day by adopt­ing a uni­ver­sal, unthreat­en­ing sym­bol of work­er safe­ty, the canary.”

The canary’s an appro­pri­ate sym­bol,” Lam­bert said. “It shows that today work­ers are the canaries — they are front-line pro­tec­tion for all of us.” The canary also showed up in the CLC’s new poster for April 28.

Lam­bert and oth­ers saw the poten­tial for a day of “pre­ven­tive action for work­ers which will be rec­og­nized by soci­ety in gen­er­al.” They called on CUPE locals to have activ­i­ties in the week head­ing up to the 28th. They sent a pack­age with a new poster — intro­duc­ing the canary sym­bol — and a spe­cial issue of the health and safe­ty newslet­ter. There also was a work­place inspec­tion check­list and calls for locals to cam­paign for gov­ern­ment recog­ni­tion of the day, and to bar­gain or ask employ­ers for a moment’s silence at 11 a.m. on April 28.

CUPE mem­bers and oth­ers respond­ed with enthu­si­asm. The British Colum­bia CUPE health and safe­ty com­mit­tee had a “Spot the Haz­ard” cam­paign for work­place inspec­tions. In Win­nipeg, Man­i­to­ba, the Fed­er­a­tion of Labour and CUPE pro­duced tags with the canary sym­bol and “Day of Mourn­ing, April 28”. They sold them with mem­bers of the local pro­fes­sion­al foot­ball team and the Boys and Girls Club, with pro­ceeds to the Club. In Wind­sor, Ontario, more than 300 peo­ple marched to the Min­istry of Labour to lay a wreath and release black bal­loons inscribed with “We came here to work, not to die”.

The cam­paign for gov­ern­ment recog­ni­tion paid off. In Feb­ru­ary 1991, the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment passed a pri­vate member’s bill, nam­ing April 28 as the “Day of Mourn­ing for Per­sons Killed or Injured in the Work­place.” Provin­cial and munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments also rec­og­nize the day.

These efforts and many oth­ers inspired trade unions and health and safe­ty activists and around the world. Mon­u­ments and plaques are some of the most com­mon respons­es. There were so many by 2001 that Ed Thomas of Hamil­ton wrote a book about them [2]. The Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Occu­pa­tion­al Health and Safe­ty (CCOHS) put some of his pic­tures on a web page [3].

The cam­paign for recog­ni­tion of the day has been suc­cess­ful. Now, what about the goals behind it?

References

[1]     D. Wig­more. “The His­to­ry Behind April 28th”.  Occu­pa­tion­al Health and Safe­ty Sec­tion Newslet­ter, Spring 2010. Amer­i­can Pub­lic Health Asso­ci­a­tion (APHA).

[2]     E. Thomas, Dead But Not For­got­ten: Mon­u­ments to Work­ers. Ed Thomas, 2001.

[3]     Ccohs.ca, “Nation­al Day of Mourn­ing – April 28″, 2015. [Online]. Avail­able: http://www.ccohs.ca/events/mourning/. [Accessed: 05- Jan- 2016].

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Acknowl­edge­ments: D. Wig­more, APHA, 2010.
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Author: Doug Nix

Doug Nix is Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Compliance InSight Consulting, Inc. (http://www.complianceinsight.ca) in Kitchener, Ontario, and is Lead Author and Senior Editor of the Machinery Safety 101 blog. Doug's work includes teaching machinery risk assessment techniques privately and through Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario, as well as providing technical services and training programs to clients related to risk assessment, industrial machinery safety, safety-related control system integration and reliability, laser safety and regulatory conformity. For more see Doug's LinkedIn profile.