With Labour Day upon us it means that the summer of 2020 is coming to a close. To say it was a unique one would be an understatement.
A 2020 Stanley Cup champion has yet to be crowned and our local sports fields and arenas have remained unusually quiet. As schools start to open up it looks as though a number of fall traditions in high school athletics will also not be taking place.
As I go through some of the different newspaper clippings, photographs and articles that we have on file at the Northwestern Sports Hall of Fame I am often reminded about how much of a community holiday Labour Day used to be with a number of events and activities, many of them sports related, being held throughout our area during the long weekend in September.
I guess it was fitting that a great deal of our Labour Day history is connected to sport as the history of the holiday traces its roots back to the desire on the part of people to be provided with more opportunity to play, rather than to work.
As I understand it, the tradition of the holiday in Canada started back in the 1870s when typographical workers in Toronto went on strike to try to get their work week reduced to 58 hours. The organizers of the strike were jailed, as union activities were illegal at that time.
Eventually the Trade Union Act was established, which legalized union activity, and a tradition of parades and picnics to celebrate and campaign for worker’s rights became a common occurrence. Labour Day was unofficially celebrated at various times of the year during the 1880s and early 1890s, and in July of 1894 the Canadian government officially made Labour Day a national holiday to be celebrated each September.
It was not long before popular sports of the day would use the national holiday to hold special sporting events.
A newspaper account of 1903 noted that the final game of soccer-football in the Superior Trophy series was to be played on the Young Men’s Association (YMA) grounds on Labour Day.
On Monday, Sept. 6, 1909 it was reported that one of the largest crowds to have witnessed a sporting event at the Lakehead up to that point turned up at the Britt’s grounds on May Street to watch the International Football Match which featured selected players representing their homelands of England and Scotland.
The tradition of a Labour Day soccer tournament was resurrected many years later with the establishment in 1968 of the Labatt’s International Soccer Tournament which was a highlight on the soccer calendar for over a quarter-century.
At its height, upwards of 30 teams from across mid-Canada and the upper United States participated in the event, which saw a women’s division added in 1987. The event was highly competitive and would attract in excess of 1,000 players and fans from across the region and from cities such as Winnipeg and Minneapolis. By the late 1980s teams were also travelling from southern Ontario to compete for a portion of the nearly $10,000 in prize money.
Multi-sport activities were also popular activities over the years.
According to a 1935 Labour Day Sports program, activities were held at the Lakehead fairgrounds starting off with a push-mobile race at 12:30, which was followed up by a wide variety of races. At the event the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada (AAU of C) sponsored races for people of all ages, and the Canadian Wheelmen’s Association sponsored the district cycling championships. There were also a number of horse competitions in jumping, saddle, harness and thoroughbred racing.
A report of the 1949 Annual Labour Day festivities highlighted that Ray Neill of Port Arthur won the Cochrane-Dunlop trophy as the all-round winner in the days sporting events. John Rintala, who was 57 years of age at the time, claimed the three-mile race with Lorne Allard capturing the one-mile and 220-yard dash.
The married women’s race was won by Mrs. Marion Young of Chippewa Park and Mrs. Vivian Bazan, who was sponsored by the International Co-op Stores, won the Popularity Contest.
It was also during the 1940s that the tradition of the Labour Day Classic began in Canadian professional football. Over the years, CFL stadiums across Canada would be packed with fans flocking to see games between such popular long-standing rivals as Winnipeg and Saskatchewan, Edmonton and Calgary and Toronto and Hamilton. Due to the cancellation of the 2020 CFL season, this weekend will mark the first time since 1949 that the ‘Classic’ will not be played.
Not all sporting events usually held this weekend are being cancelled. When our area golfers take to the links to participate in the 2020 Teleco district amateur men’s golf championships, they will be carrying on a long tradition. This event traces its origins back to the 1920s and for the majority of that time, it has taken place over the Labour Day weekend.
In fact, in 1938 a course change was made when golfers lodged a complaint that the Fort William Country Club had scheduled the tournament for the weekend after Labour Day,resulting in the event being moved to the Port Arthur Golf and Country Club.
Other event organizers are dealing with the impact of COVID-19 by redesigning their traditional Labour Day activities. The Hymers Annual Fall Fair, which began back in 1912, will not be opening its gates this year, just as it did not from 1941-45 due to the impact of the Second World War. Instead, it will be holding a virtual market, online concert and weekly exhibit challenges.
I will do my part to carry on the two-decade long Labour Day sports tradition of the Chapples Ladies Charity Invitational Golf Tournament which would normally see upwards of 100 women take to the links to raise funds for the Arthritis Society.
Although we won’t be hosting the full tournament this year, I will be golfing with the members of the organizing committee in a fun mini-tournament. Whatever your plans are, stay safe and enjoy your time celebrating old traditions or making some new ones.
Until next time keep that sports history pride alive.
Diane Imrie is the executive director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.