Bob McKeon


September 20, 2010

Labour Day means different things to different people in Alberta. For many of us, Labour Day is a much-treasured long weekend marking the end of summer.

For students and teachers, it signals the time for going back to school. For CFL football fans, it is the occasion for the annual Edmonton Eskimo-Calgary Stampeder football classic.

For the Edmonton District Labour Council, Labour Day is a day for a special barbecue in a local city centre park for the unemployed and underemployed. Last year more than 5,000 people participated in the barbecue.

The public celebration of Labour Day in Canada goes back to the 1880s. It has its origins in the struggles of early labour unions in Toronto working to achieve just working conditions and a living wage for their members. Today Labour Day is to be a day for recognizing and celebrating the contributions of workers to our society.

Significantly, the Canadian Catholic Liturgical Calendar provides for the celebration of a special Mass for the Blessing of Human Labour on Labour Day. (Human labour includes both paid and unpaid work, which can be in the home, community or jobsite.)

This Mass includes prayers and Lectionary readings relating to theme of human labour. The Opening Prayer asks God the Father to "give all people work that enhances their human dignity and draws them closer to each other in the service of their brothers and sisters."


There is a fundamental liturgical principle that we are called to live what we pray or put more simply "to walk our (God) talk." What does this mean for those of us who seek to make this prayer our own?

First, this prayer is an invitation for each of us to look at the place our work has in our own lives. What attitude do we bring to our work? Do we act ethically? How do we relate to our coworkers? Is our work supportive or damaging to our families? How do we see God present in our workplaces?

Praying this prayer also calls for us to look to what extent human dignity is respected and diminished in the way work is organized in our society. Certainly many of us often do experience a respect for our human dignity in our workplaces.


However, too many of us in Alberta do not receive a living wage for our work, and seek to challenge a government policy that freezes Alberta's already low minimum wage.

When temporary foreign workers in our community call St. Vincent de Paul Society volunteers and our parish food banks to ask for emergency food assistance, we know something is seriously wrong in the way work is organized in our province.

Last April, the Alberta auditor general reported that the rate of workplace fatalities and injuries in Alberta was above the national average and increasing, and called for the Alberta government to strengthen its occupational health safety regulations, enforcement and public reporting.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Labour Day was the occasion for the Canadian bishops to issue their famous Labour Day social justice messages on issues including economic justice, aboriginal rights and world hunger. This practice ended in Canada many years ago.

Interestingly, the U.S. bishops have continued this tradition. Their 2010 Labour Day Message acknowledges the difficulties workers have faced at this time of recession, high unemployment and economic breakdown.

The U.S. bishops call for a "new social contract" which "begins by honouring work and workers" that "ultimately focuses on the common good of the entire human family."

Later this month in Canada, the Catholic Organization for Life and Families (COLF) will issue its annual Letter to Families at Look for this year's COLF letter which will focus on the Christian meaning of work and how our work relates to our family life.


I suspect most of us did not get to church this Labour Day, and did not get to celebrate the Mass for blessing human labour. However, this opportunity need not be lost.

This September when we meet in our parish councils, RCIA groups or social action committees, we can use the readings and prayers for Labour Day for a time of a shared prayer and group reflection on our own experiences of work.

(Bob McKeon at