Caroline Hyslop and Erin Virgint
Legal and Social Affairs Division
Since the early 1980s, Canadian labour unions have observed 28 April as a day of mourning for workers who were killed or injured as a result of workplace-related hazards and incidents.
By 1991, 28 April had become widely recognized in Canada, and Parliament passed the Workers Mourning Day Act, bestowing official recognition on the observance. The Day of Mourning for Persons Killed or Injured in the Workplace was Canada’s first commemorative day that was not a legal holiday.
To honour the day, Canadian flags at all federal buildings, including the Peace Tower are flown at half-mast on April 28 each year.
Until Parliament considered the Workers Mourning Day Act, it was expected that any day of mourning or day of celebration established by Parliament or proclaimed by the Governor in Council would be treated as a legal holiday. This would result in federal government offices, courts and federally regulated businesses closing for the day.
During the Commons debate, the bill’s sponsor, MP Rod Murphy, noted that this expectation was an impediment to obtaining all-party support in the House. As a result, he introduced a clause stipulating that the day “is not a legal holiday or a non-juridical day”. It was the first time such a clause was used in Canadian law.
Some parliamentarians in both the Senate and the House of Commons questioned the notion of establishing a national observance that was not a legal holiday. Nevertheless, the bill received support from all parties and was granted Royal Assent on 1 February 1991.
International recognition for 28 April
Over the past 20 years, a number of countries around the world have followed suit in recognizing 28 April as a workers’ memorial day.
Interestingly, 28 April has no particular international significance. Rather, the Canadian Labour Congress recognized it as the anniversary of the date that Ontario introduced Canada’s first worker safety legislation in 1914. Nonetheless, many jurisdictions have taken it up, and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety notes that it has spread to more than 80 countries.
The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, recognizes 28 April as World Day for Safety and Health at Work. In the United States and the United Kingdom, it is known as Workers’ Memorial Day.
The importance of workplace safety
The day is intended to foster recognition of workers killed or injured on the job, to make workers more aware of the dangers they face, and to promote safe and healthy workplaces.
According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, 902 individuals died in the workplace in Canada in 2013. It was the lowest total since 2000 when there were 882 fatalities. However, it still represents 2.47 deaths every day.
Other national days and observances
In addition to promoting workplace safety, the Workers Mourning Day Act established a new practice for bestowing parliamentary recognition on many different national days and observances.
This has become a popular way for parliamentarians to raise awareness of certain issues and to recognize a great number of commemorative, celebratory and memorial occasions.
Some special observances that have been recognized by Parliament include memorial occasions such as Vimy Ridge Day (9 April), cultural celebrations like National Acadian Day (15 August), and occasions to promote civic action such as National Blood Donor Week, the week in which 14 June occurs.
- Library of Parliament. Designation of National Days and Observances in Canada
- Canadian Heritage. Half-masting of the Flag Notices
- Canadian Heritage. Rules for Half-masting the National Flag of Canada
- Government of Canada Labour Program. National Day of Mourning
- Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. National Day of Mourning
- Canadian Labour Congress. National Day of Mourning