Labour Day: Celebrating the Achievements of Canada’s Labour Leaders

4 min read

Here are just a few of Canadian history’s biggest legal wins for organized labour.

Labour Day is here, and with it come celebrations of all the achievements of Canada’s organized labour movements. Unions have played a strong role in shaping current labour law in Canada, as have labour lawyers. Canada has strong worker protections in place relative to other countries; Canadians enjoy access to employment benefits like parental leave, overtime pay, and limited work hours much in part to union lawyers who fought for these rights in the courts. Here are just some of the most substantial achievements the labour movement has won throughout Canadian history.

1872: Striking Workers Force Passage of the Trade Union Act

Canada’s first Labour Day event took place in 1872, when unions were technically illegal due to an outdated British law that was still on the books. For three years prior, the Toronto Printers Union had been pushing employers for a shorter work week, and in March 1872, the union threatened to strike. After their employers repeatedly ignored their demands, the union went on strike on March 25, paralyzing the Toronto publishing industry.

On April 14, 1872, over 10,000 workers marched in the streets of Toronto, forcing the city’s publishers to take notice. The Toronto Globe brought in new workers to replace the strikers, and even had some of the strike leaders arrested.

That’s when then-Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald took notice; Macdonald publicly chastised Toronto Globe founder George Brown in Toronto at a rally in front of city hall. Shortly thereafter, Macdonald passed the Trade Unions Act, decriminalizing unions. 

1882: The United States Takes Notice of Canadian Labour Activity

July 22, 1882 marked the first informal Labour Day event, taking place in Toronto. On that day, a large celebration in the streets of Toronto attracted the attention of Peter J. McGuire, an American labour leader and the co-founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. McGuire would later organize a similar parade in New York City in September 1882; subsequently, the first Monday in September became known as a celebration of labour.

1894: Labour Day Becomes a Public Holiday

In 1894, United States President Grover Cleveland declared the first Monday in September to be an American federal holiday. Canada followed the United States shortly thereafter, declaring Labour Day a public holiday in 1894 and soon afterward developing a number of traditions like marches, sports games, and motorcycle rallies.

1987: Collective Bargaining Gains Charter Protection

In the 1987 Supreme Court case Reference RE: Public Service Employee Relations Act, the Supreme Court decreed that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects collective bargaining. This ruling specifically referenced the rights of public sector employees to engage in collective bargaining, thereby enshrining in the law the right to union representation for public sector workers.

2015: Supreme Court Protects the Right to Strike

Canadian unions did not always have the right to strike. In 2008, the province of Saskatchewan introduced the Public Service Essential Services Act (PSESA) and the Trade Union Amendment Act, which limited public-sector workers’ ability to strike. The PSESA declared that some workers, like nurses and paramedics, were not eligible to strike due to their essential nature. Under this law, the union and their employer would have the ability to negotiate an essential services agreement – but if no agreement could be made, the employer could determine who is too “essential” to go on strike. The law provided no process for employees to challenge decisions regarding who is essential. The law also changed the rules regarding how a trade union can be certified or decertified, and it altered the provisions regarding how employers and employees can communicate.

The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) challenged these two laws in 2008, arguing that the laws infringe on Canadians’ right to freedom of association. At trial, the PSESA was deemed to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and were overturned. The trial court gave the Government of Saskatchewan one year to change the legislation; instead, Saskatchewan appealed. In 2013, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld the law, ruling that the possibility of a Charter right to strike is something the Supreme Court of Canada should decide.

The SFL then appealed the case to the Supreme Court; at the Supreme Court, it was decided that the right to strike is essential to collective bargaining and a core principle of human rights. The PSESA was found to violate the Charter by prohibiting strike action, and this breach was found to be unjustified. The Supreme Court also weighed in on the Trade Union Amendment Act, finding the Act to be constitutional.

The ultimate effect of these rulings was to enshrine in the law a constitutionally-protected right to strike.

The history of the labour movement in Canada is filled with stories of common workers winning rights and protections that make workplaces safer, more equitable, and more inclusive. Canada’s labour lawyers have played a significant part in that history, helping to interpret and apply the law in ways that promote safety and inclusion. This Labour Day, let’s reflect on these legal victories as we enjoy some hard-won time off.

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Jack McCoy: Law & Order’s Diligent Prosecutor Extraordinaire

Perhaps the hardest-working lawyer on this list, Jack McCoy is the District Attorney for the city of Manhattan. A fierce attorney with a passion for justice, McCoy is as unconventional in his methods as he is sound in his legal theory. His tenacity in court has earned him the moniker “Hang ‘em High McCoy”, and he describes himself as a “junkyard dog”. Despite this reputation, his peers in the legal community have immense respect for his considerable legal mind. McCoy’s greatest strength is his indomitable work ethic; he stops at nothing to win his cases.

Atticus Finch: To Kill a Mockingbird’s Wise Defense Attorney

Atticus Finch is easily the most morally upright lawyer on this list. His portrayal in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has had a profound effect on the real-world legal profession; some scholars have posited that Finch has become a folk hero in the legal community. Finch even influenced the real-life case of the Timothy McVeigh trial; the judge in that case, Richard Paul Matsch, notes that Finch is a major influence on the judiciary. In 1997, the Alabama State Bar established an Atticus Finch monument in Monroeville to commemorate Finch’s contributions to real-world law.

Despite the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is among one of the most-banned books in the world, it nonetheless has an important theme: The constant tug of good and evil in the hearts of humankind. Let us aspire to the good and turn away from the evil. 

Abigail Bianchi: Family Law’s Problematic Prodigy

She’s a brash young family lawyer whose obsession with work inevitably leads to substance abuse problems and causes a rift in her own family. After a video of her vomiting in court goes viral, Abigail Bianchi (portrayed by Jewel Staite) joins her father’s family law practice as part of her court-ordered rehabilitation, where she meets a half-brother and half-sister she didn’t know she had.

But despite her alcoholism and rocky marriage, Bianchi is a talented and tenacious lawyer who defends her clients’ interests with aplomb. Bianchi takes on a number of heart-wrenching cases, helping liberate a gay teen from a conversion camp, launching a class-action lawsuit against an unethical fertility doctor, and navigating a tricky case involving a couple who are at odds on what to do about their adopted baby with a severe medical condition. Despite being rough around the edges and having her own personal demons, Bianchi stops at nothing to do what’s best for her clients

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney’s Veteran Criminal Defender

Appearing in the video game series Ace Attorney, Phoenix Wright is a criminal defense lawyer and the owner of the Wright Anything law firm. A strong thinker with an unshakeable moral compass, Wright first took interest in criminal defense law as a 10-year-old. He was accused of stealing another student’s lunch money at school, despite no one having any evidence that he had committed the theft. Ultimately, he was found innocent – and this experience sparked his passion for law.

As a young lawyer, Wright made a name for himself winning a string of “unwinnable” cases through his creativity and quick thinking. Even trial judges held him in high esteem, revelling in his unique arguments.

While Wright himself ran into some legal trouble when he (albeit unknowingly) presented forged evidence in court, he was ultimately exonerated and reinstated as an attorney. He would later go on to re-implement the jurist system, ending the judge-only trial system.

Matt Murdock: Daredevil’s Justice-Obsessed Vigilante Lawyer

When he isn’t pursuing justice in the courts, he’s pursuing justice in the streets. Despite being blinded by radioactive waste as a boy, Matt Murdock quickly found that his other four senses were greatly heightened. After his father was murdered, Murdock dedicated himself to the cause of justice; he studied law at Columbia University, then interned at the large law corporation Landman & Zack with his best friend Foggy Nelson. Eventually, though, the pair tired of defending large and highly profitable corporations; they started their own law firm, Nelson & Murdock, to help the innocent and make a difference.

By day, Murdock would take on cases defending the helpless and righting wrongs; by night, he’d find the actual perpetrators of crimes his clients were accused of and practice a much more violent form of street justice. While we can’t endorse his extracurriculars, this superhero defense attorney proves that you don’t need a sense of sight to see what’s right.

Jennifer Walters: She-Hulk’s Superhero Attorney

She’s green, she’s mean, and she’s ready to fight crime in more ways than one. After graduating summa cum laude from UCLA law school, Jennifer Walters began working as a lawyer in Los Angeles when she was suddenly visited by her cousin, Bruce Banner. After an attack by a crime boss, Walters was gravely injured; Banner transformed into The Hulk and fended off her attackers before breaking into a doctor’s office.

There, Banner gave Walters the blood transfusion that would not only save her life, but change it forever. The radiation in Banner’s blood ultimately led to Walters becoming She-Hulk, a 6-foot-tall green creature with super strength.

Walters would use her powers to pursue the crime boss who killed her mother, fighting criminals in the streets as she came to terms with her new form. As a lawyer, she opposed the Mutant Registration Act at the Supreme Court. After a number of superhero adventures, Walters was eager to go back to being a lawyer; unfortunately, her status as the She-Hulk unfairly influenced juries in her favour during her cases, and in order to avoid bias, her boss had to let her go. After leaving the District Attorney’s office, She-Hulk practised law on her own for a few years before joining the Superhuman Law division of the firm Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg & Holliway, where she defended superheroes in court. In her court cases, Walters developed a reputation as an idealist and a champion for the rights of minorities.


The world of media has no shortage of lawyers that we can hold up as role models. While the lawyers on this list aren’t perfect, (and some of them have significant flaws), each of them embodies some kind of ideal that lawyers can aspire to. Whether it’s Abigail Bianchi’s tenacity, Phoenix Wright’s creativity, or Jack McCoy’s worth ethic, these lawyers each have something to teach us about practising law.

Who’s your favourite fictional lawyer? What have they taught you about the practice of law?

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