Why some people get a day off on Remembrance Day — and some people don’t

Since the federal government officially established Remembrance Day as a holiday in 1931, veterans’ groups, schools, politicians, and others have debated over the best way to honour the fallen
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Nov 11, 2020
A Remembrance Day ceremony at the Stirling cenotaph. Date unknown. (Stirling-Rawdon Public Library)

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When it comes to encouraging people to commemorate and contemplate those who’ve lost their lives in armed conflicts, what’s the more effective option: to promote two minutes of silence in schools and workplaces or to give the general public the day off? That’s a question that’s been debated ever since the federal government officially established Remembrance Day as a holiday in 1931 — and the answers have highlighted the sometimes conflicting priorities of veterans’ organizations, school boards, labour unions, and the business community.

In 1921, the federal government decided to honour the fallen of the First World War by combining Armistice Day and Thanksgiving into a joint holiday to be held on the Monday of the week of November 11. By the end of the 1920s, though, veterans’ organizations increasingly felt that a long holiday weekend was not a proper way to salute the deceased. Legislation passed in the spring of 1931 separated the holidays, establishing Thanksgiving in October and Remembrance Day on November 11.

Members of the Canadian Legion (the “Royal” part of its name wouldn’t be added until 1960) were pleased to see the day recognized. “We don’t want it ever to happen that the tremendous sacrifices made by Canadians during the war should be forgotten and for that reason I think that the setting aside of one day in the year for the purpose of remembrance is a good thing,” Harry Bray, chairman of the provincial command of the Legion, told the Toronto Daily Star.

The legislation was opposed by the business community, especially in major cities. Merchants believed that, in the depths of the Great Depression, workers had more than enough time off thanks to shorter workdays, Sunday closures, and the existing list of holidays. Retailers felt that, as well as cutting into their profits, closing on November 11 would disrupt routines. Businessmen were happy to allow two minutes of silence at 11 a.m., but not much more. Veterans’ groups held that the business community was being greedy and selfish. Reacting to word that Hamilton merchants intended to stay open, Legion Central Branch president Oliver R. Blandy said that they were “hollering so loud for dollars and cents that they are drowning out the sacred memory of men who fought for a pittance and freely gave their lives in the war.”

The legislation led to a holiday for bank employees, civil servants, and schoolchildren but was left open to interpretation by other businesses and institutions, creating plenty of confusion. Cities and towns could issue declarations for a public holiday, but they didn’t have to be followed. In 1932, numerous trade organizations called for the federal government to institute a uniform observance of Remembrance Day across the country — preferably one that would involve two minutes of silence and appropriate accompanying ceremonies.

Editorial pages across Ontario debated whether a full-day holiday was the appropriate way to remember. Most felt it wasn’t. The editor of the Durham Chronicle complained about an ad he’d seen promoting a shooting match and horseshoe-pitching competition in Listowel on November 11. “A fine way in which to spend a day set aside for the purpose of honouring Canadian soldiers who fell in the Great War!” he sneered. Other editorial pages stressed that the true meaning of the day came during the moment of silence. Alternative suggestions included holding it on the Sunday closest to November 11.

In January 1935, the federal government redefined Remembrance Day, placing it officially among other public holidays for banks, schools, and civil servants. No action was taken to forbid other work. Later that year, Ontario attorney general Arthur Roebuck said that, while there weren’t any statutes to enforce observance of November 11 as a public holiday, he urged residents of the province to take a break. “It is the desire of the government of Ontario that all citizens contribute towards the observance of the day by voluntarily ceasing all except essential business activities and by individually attending such Remembrance Day services as are arranged in the community,” he said in a press release prepared after discussion with a committee of veterans.

The result was a patchwork of practices. In communities such as Barrie, petitions from local veterans’ groups resulted in proclamations declaring that all businesses would close. In some places, shops closed while factories remained opened. In Toronto, giving employees two minutes of silence — or, if they worked downtown, the opportunity to attend public ceremonies — remained the preferred option. Kitchener-Waterloo businessmen were angry that Toronto stores remained open, drawing customers who might have shopped in the twin cities that day. The next year, the number of cities that closed for only an hour grew.

During the Second World War, the federal government reviewed the necessity of some statutory holidays and their effect on war production. While Remembrance Day, along with Boxing Day and Easter Monday, was tossed on the scrap heap in 1942, Canadians were encouraged to continue observing two minutes of silence and to attend limited public memorial ceremonies. The province decided that November 11 would be a regular school day, but one on which the dead would be honoured. “The commemoration by the pupils of our schools of the great Empire builders and of those who have given their lives in defence of our country will not in any manner interfere with production for war purposes, and should indeed be more emphasized than ever before in these days when the ideals for which they worked and died are threatened,” Minister of Education Duncan McArthur observed.

After the war, Remembrance Day was reinstated as a statutory holiday. Veterans’ groups continued to lobby for a compulsory national holiday, while some politicians continued to worry about potential effects on businesses. During a heated discussion at a convention of municipal officials held in Toronto in 1953, Hamilton alderman Robert Purnell accused labour organizers of using veterans to push for another paid holiday and suggested that the Sunday closest to November 11 be set aside. York Township reeve Fred Hall tore into Purnell. “If we can’t set aside one day in the year to honour the men who died in defense of our freedom,” Hall argued, “there is something wrong.” While the gathering endorsed the request from the veterans, it had no effect.

Schools remained a contentious issue. In 1963, the Kitchener branch of the Legion called two local school trustees “anti-Canadian” for suggesting it was better to have Remembrance Day services in schools than a day off. Delegates at a provincial school trustee convention held in Niagara Falls in 1964 voted unanimously to end the school holiday. “I don’t think the day means anything anymore,” Toronto Board of Education chairman William Stainsby told the attendees. The Legion gradually changed its position — by the 1980s, it favoured student participation in community services. When Minister of Education Bette Stephenson in late 1982 announced the elimination of the school holiday in favour of services and in-class activities, she was supported by school boards and fellow MPPs.

Reflecting on the end of the school holiday in 1983, Legion provincial secretary Reg Cleator told the Toronto Star, “It was a joke. All kids did was run around, raise hell, and patronize the pinball parlors.” Its efforts going forward focused on ensuring that businesses would be compelled to observe two minutes of silence. When it came to children, the Legion concluded, contests, contact with veterans, and school activities were far more effective in stressing the contemplative aspect of the day.

Since the 1980s, MPPs across party lines have introduced private members’ bills to declare some or all of November 11 as a full holiday, only to watch them inevitably die. The ideas presented have varied: In 1987, Norm Sterling (Carleton) proposed giving all veterans a stat holiday, but Premier David Peterson worried about complaints of discrimination if they were the only group granted a full day off. In 1997, Morley Kells (Etobicoke–Lakeshore) managed to get the Remembrance Day Observance Act through; the bill encouraged two minutes of silence but was purely voluntary. Several MPPs backed a proposal from a St. Catharines accountant to declare a half-day holiday in 2000. Ten years later, Lisa MacLeod (Nepean–Carleton) proposed using Remembrance Day instead of Family Day on the provincial holiday calendar, an idea opposed by school boards and the Legion.

How does the public feel? In a series of polls conducted since 2012, Historica Canada and Ipsos have found that up to 90 per cent of Canadians support making Remembrance Day a full national statutory holiday.

Sources: the October 10, 1932, edition of the Durham Chronicle; the May 7, 1931, edition of the Financial Post; the October 31, 1942, March 6, 1943, May 22, 1953, October 19, 1963, and December 3, 1982, editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 7, 2000, edition of the Niagara Falls Review; the November 11, 1987, and November 12, 2000, editions of the Ottawa Citizen; the September 12, 1931, October 16, 1931, and October 26, 1983, editions of the Toronto Star; and the October 31, 1935, November 13, 1935, October 20, 1942, June 3, 1964, October 9, 1964, and November 23, 1982, editions of the Windsor Star.

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