Machinery Safety 101

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

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. 

The post you are cur­rently read­ing 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.

Poster 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

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?


[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], “Nation­al Day of Mourn­ing – April 28”, 2015. [Online]. Avail­able: [Accessed: 05- Jan- 2016].

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Acknow­ledge­ments: D. Wig­more, APHA, 2010.
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