We were treated to a substantial display of fireworks in Prescott this Labour Day weekend. It was a warm, clear night with little activity except for some boaters on the St. Lawrence River and the sound of Ogdensburg’s own festivities.
In a time when workers’ rights, and even workers’ benefits, are almost taken for granted, it’s little wonder that the 1872 origins of Labour Day and the story of the Nine-Hour Movement have become obscure.
But first, a quick look at Prescott’s own Hands Fireworks, now HFI Pryrotechnics, who continue to light our skies for special occasions.
Who would have known the company’s history goes back more than 140 years, well before their arrival in the Prescott area, in 1982?
As early as 1875, Professor William Hand (1839-1901) acquired substantial property in Hamilton, on both sides of King Street West, for a fireworks company originally established in Thorold. At first, there were just two small huts used for the mixing of high explosives.
While the use of fireworks was common in the celebration of special events in Victorian times, North America’s fair going audiences hungered, by the end of the century, for more and more spectacular re-enactments. These involved elaborate sets, live music, and the integration of fireworks into the drama.
At least one gun powder firm, Professor Hand & Co., emerged in Canada to take on the work started by James Pain, a prominent pyrotechnist and retailer of explosives, with a shop on “Firecracker Lane”, in New York City. Today the Pain name lives on in a UK fireworks company.
Trained by his father — the Professor — T.W. Hand started touring Ontario as young as 14, setting off displays at a variety of occasions, including Belleville’s 1878 celebration of its new status as a city.
Unfortunately, Professor Hand died in 1901, of severe burns sustained in an accident at his Hamilton plant, and a year before, business partner Walter Teale and another worker were mixing explosives, when an explosion occurred that shattered the windows of Hamilton over a mile away. Both men were instantly killed. In spite of these turn-of-the-century tragedies, T.W. carried on the business, eventually making Hands the biggest fireworks company in Canada.
In the early 19th century, most Canadians worked as farmers, fishers, and craft workers. Often, there was little differentiation between one’s work and home life. Most people lived on farms or in small villages, and family members all contributed to the family livelihood.
During the second half of the 19th century, Canada experienced its industrial revolution. Immigration was increasing, cities were growing, and machines were automating or replacing work processes. Employees no longer had special skills, and often chose not to speak out against low wages, long work days, and harsh working conditions, for fear of losing their jobs.
The Canadian Nine-Hour Movement was born in Hamilton’s Mechanics’ Institute (a forerunner to our public libraries today) on January 27, 1872. The Institute’s hall on that night had never held so many of the class that it had been intended for!
Inspired by their colleagues in Hamilton, Toronto’s printers threatened to strike if their demands weren’t met. After repeatedly being ignored by their employers, the workers took action on March 25, 1872, and went on strike.
Toronto’s publishing industry came to a standstill, and the workers soon had the support of others. On April 15, a group of 2,000 workers marched through the streets and by the time they had reached Queen’s Park, the parade had 10,000 participants – one tenth of Toronto’s population, at the time.
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald quickly saw the political benefit of siding with the workers. He spoke out against Toronto’s employers at a public demonstration, and gained the support of the workers. In June 1872, Macdonald passed the Trade Union Act, which repealed the outdated British laws and decriminalized unions.
The parades of 1872, held in support of the strikers, carried over into an annual celebration. Adopted in cities throughout Canada, the parades demonstrated solidarity, with different unions carrying different colorful banners. In 1894, Prime Minister Sir John Thompson declared Labour Day a national holiday.