April 28 is the National Day of Mourning, a day where people are invited to remember those who were killed, or seriously injured on the job. Usually this involves people getting together to remember and memorialize, but this year, because of COVID-19, it’s forced a change of the usual plans for the occasion. This year, like with so many other events, the National Day of Mourning will be virtual.
“There are quite a few groups that have just cancelled it all together, but we still needed to commemorate the day because it’s such an important event, especially now with the pandemic,” said Jennifer Hesch, the president of the Guelph & District Labour Council.
A typical Day of Mourning for the Labour Council involves a walk from City Hall to Goldie Mill Park where there is music, speeches, and the laying of roses at a tree the Labour Council planted there. The City of Guelph has its own separate remembrance at City Hall, but this year there will be no in-person interaction, and instead it will all be handled through the video conferencing app Zoom.
“We’ve got some guest speakers, we have the president of the Firefighters Association calling, and he’s going to speak about how how the pandemic is affecting firefighters and first responders,” said Hesch. “We may have a nurse speaking, and if not we have a food service worker that’s going to speak as well.”
If you’re sensing a theme, it’s intentional. Unions and labour groups organizing National Day of Mourning activities this year are dedicated to workers who are still on the job, and out in public, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic; from medical professionals, to emergency workers, and staff at grocery stores and restaurants.
“I’m glad they changed the theme [this year] because it’s affecting everybody, and not just workers,” Hesch explained. “We have a lot of people working from home like myself, we have a lot of people who are laid off, and it’s a stressful for everybody, especially those workers that have been deemed essential.”
Hesch added that she’s been hearing from workers that being on the job now still comes with some unacceptable risk; she said that there are some essential businesses open that don’t necessarily have personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees, or are observing social distancing in the workplace. At the same time, COVID-19 is not the only workplace concern that Hesch wants people to think about on the Day of Mourning.
“You have employers not providing proper training, or not making sure that they have mechanisms in place to ensure workers are kept safe if they’re working with equipment and that sort of thing,” Hesch said.
As the head of the local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, Hesch said that safety in the workplace was a primary concern in her union’s recently completed negotiations with the Government of Ontario.
“We have teachers and education workers that are getting spit on, or having their hair pulled. I had a pregnant member that got punched in the stomach by a kindergarten student,” Hesch explained. “The number one issue that ETFO was fighting for was increased safety precautions and increased training about violence at work because our teachers and education workers shouldn’t have to go to work wearing body armour and face shields with children.”
The Guelph ceremony for the National Day of Mourning is being held by invitation due to the limited number of people allowed to take part in a single meeting, and to protect the security of the mevent. The ceremonies and speeches will be recorded and then uploaded to the Labour Council’s Facebook page so that everyone can watch it.
Along with the other speakers, Hesch said that Mayor Cam Guthrie, MPP Mike Schreiner, and MP Lloyd Longfield will also be taking part virtually, and Ward 2 Councillor James Gordon will be providing some music. “It’s been a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure this goes forward, but I’m happy that we’re continuing with it,” she added.
Somewhat more disappointingly for Hesch and other workers, is the cancellation of May Day festivities on May 1, which she calls the “real Labour Day” because organizing the annual Labour Day picnic in September in Riverside Park is, itself, a lot of work for the local unions.
“We’re all usually busy running around serving the hotdogs and making sure everyone has an information booth and things like that, so it actually becomes a working day,” Hesch said. “We always try and use [May Day] as a day to celebrate and unfortunately we can’t hold our barbeque this year but I still want to make sure that we make mention of it and bring it to people’s attention so that they can think about and celebrate workers everywhere on May 1.”
Photo Credit: Mayor Cam Guthrie, MP Lloyd Longfield and others attend the flag raising at City Hall during the commemoration of the National Day of Mourning in 2019.