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?


[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/​e​v​e​n​t​s​/​m​o​u​r​n​i​ng/. [Accessed: 05- Jan- 2016].

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2015
Acknowledgements: D. Wigmore, APHA, 2010.
All Rights Reserved