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], “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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National Day of Mourning

Today is the 28th of April, the Nation­al Day of Mourn­ing for Work­ers Killed at Work.

Each year in Cana­da work­ers, employ­ers and cit­i­zens gath­er to pay their respects to peo­ple killed at work. This is as impor­tant a day in my mind as Novem­ber 11. Why?

  • I believe that every­one who wants to con­tribute to soci­ety should be able to work and be paid a fair wage for their efforts.
  • I believe that every­one who goes to work is enti­tled to a safe work­place.
  • I believe that every­one who goes to work is enti­tled to go home to their lives, their loved ones, their hopes and dreams every day.
  • I believe that a safe work­place is a pro­duc­tive work­place.
  • I believe that engi­neers, tech­nol­o­gists, tech­ni­cians, trades­per­sons and oth­ers that design, build, main­tain and mod­i­fy machin­ery have an eth­i­cal and moral oblig­a­tion to ensure the ongo­ing safe­ty of those that use the prod­ucts that result from their work.

Every year in Cana­da hun­dreds of peo­ple die at work. As you can see, despite increas­ing efforts to reg­u­late safe­ty in the work­place, the annu­al toll as shown by the red trend line con­tin­ues to rise.

Total Canadian Workplace Fatalities 1993-2010
Total Cana­di­an Work­place Fatal­i­ties 1993–2010

These fig­ures come from the Nation­al Work Injury Sta­tis­tics Pro­gram (NWISP), and the source chart can be found here.

What can we do to reverse this trend? I think we need to “be the change we want to see in the world’, mak­ing cer­tain that we take the time to under­stand the reg­u­la­tions and stan­dards that apply to our designs, that we imple­ment the best tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions in those designs, and that we ensure that we do not endan­ger oth­ers by ren­der­ing those safe­ty sys­tems inef­fec­tive.

Today, take a moment to pause at 11:00 and be silent. Light a can­dle or hold a vig­il. You won’t be alone. Then, work for change.

These are just some of the rea­sons why this day is so impor­tant to me. What about you? Do you know some­one whose life end­ed at work? Do you know a fam­i­ly that has been affect­ed by a work­place injury or fatal­i­ty? Please share your thoughts and sto­ries in the com­ments!

Want to know more about the Cana­di­an Nation­al Day of Mourn­ing? See this page and this page.