Workers on stamps tell story of Canada’s evolution

By Bret Evans

As Canadians prepare for Labour Day weekend, few people remember it was originally set up to honour unionized workers and had its origin in strife.

The first labour parade in Canada was held in 1872 to rally behind a strike by the Toronto Printer’s Union in support of a nine-hour work day. For years, it was held on May 1 – the traditional day it was celebrated in Europe in the late 19th century – but eventually, it was moved to the end of summer. In 1894, Parliament made Labour Day a national statutory holiday to be marked on the first Monday of September.

Canada’s early economy was based on agriculture. Even in the early part of the 1900s, a significant portion of our population still worked on the production of food. Canadian industry was only just beginning to take off, and the business of farming was based on horsepower as well as manpower. This was reflected on the 20-cent stamp of the 1928 Scroll Issue (Unitrade #157), which shows farm workers harvesting wheat using a horse-drawn wagon.

For the Wartime Issue of 1942, a new pastoral scene emerged, but it was matched with a 20-cent stamp depicting ship-building (Unitrade #260) and a 50-cent stamp showing armaments manufacturing (Unitrade #261). At this time, labour was rarely organized, and to many Canadians the term trade union was synonymous with Communism.

Moving into the era of Elizabeth II, stamps continued to depict industry. It was an age of progress, and factories, mines and forestry were all seen as evidence of Canada’s growing wealth.

Organized labour got its first nod in 1968 with a dark-olive six-cent stamp marking the 50th anniversary of the formation of International Labour Organization (ILO) (Unitrade #493). The design, by Julien Hebert, showed a globe, surrounded by tools.

The ILO is a United Nations agency originally formed by the League of Nations after the First World War to deal with labour issues such as equal opportunity, international labour standards and social protection. It also provides assistance to developing nations. In 1969, the year after it met in Canada, the organization received the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1997, the Postal, Telegraph and Telephone International Labour Union (PTTI) held their 28th world congress in Montréal. Canada Post recognized the event with a 45-cent multi-coloured stamp (Unitrade #1657) designed by Francois Picard; it depicts two workers, one of them a letter carrier the other a communications worker.

The stamp may have been the result of some political pressure. The previous year, the Canadian Labour Congress called for a series of stamps devoted to the Canadian labour movement and lobbied Members of Parliament for their support. At that time, the executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress was Jean-Claude Parrot, a past president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.

The PTTI was formed in 1911; it represents more than four million members from 65 unions in 102 nations, including Canada.

In 2000, a 46-cent stamp marked the centennial of the federal government’s Department of Labour (Unitrade #1866). Designed by Paul Hodgson, the stamp depicts two workers in the foreground with images of labour and industry behind them.

The called-for series of stamps honouring events and people in the Canadian labour movement never materialized.

Canada Post’s own workers got another nod in 2002 with a 48-stamp marking the centennial of the Canadian Association of Postmasters and Assistants (Unitrade #1956). Chris Candish created a striking design with a large image of a Queen Victoria two-cent stamp and a 1902 cancel from Stonewall, Man. against a sepia image of that community’s post office. Stonewall is where the organization – originally dedicated to improving the working conditions of postmasters in rural Manitoba – was formed. Today, it represents Canada Post employees who work in rural post offices and is the second-largest bargaining unit representing employees of Canada Post Corporation. Its members include more than 5,000 full- and part-time employees and more than 3,000 term employees. Members staff more than 3,200 rural post offices across Canada.

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