Canada, A Working History is the culmination of many years of thinking about the development and meaning of work and labour in Canada, and how to share that story with a wide reading audience. I began with the tedium of fast-food work, then four years as an undergraduate student integrated with summer jobs doing physical labour. Then came skilled trade work, a return to higher education and graduate school, and a transition to a full-time appointment in academia. I became intensely interested in the work experience since the first time I earned wages. Work undergirds so much of what goes in our society, and people owe it to themselves to reflect on their working lives. Work is paid and unpaid, can provide a pittance or a bounty, is sometimes fun, occasionally depressing, a source of pride, cause of shame, bountiful, scarce, and a factor in the lives of everyone at some point in life. Some of the best waking hours of our lives are spent on the job, so work better have meaning. We do not just do a job as our work is woven into our identities.
The experience of living and working in Canada received renewed scrutiny over the past year as COVID-19 infected our bodies and daily routines. The pandemic has fixated our attentions on when it will end and what will come after it. The past cannot be perfectly referenced like a map by which we can align our compasses as we voyage into the future, but it can still suggest much about what the next steps are in our working lives. Some of what is coming seems new, but the past year has often simply brought long established work and labour trends and practices into sharper relief.
The way forward is not pre-determined. As Karl Marx said, people get to make their history but not in circumstances of their choosing and the conditions in which we live come forward from the past. COVID-19 will soon belong to the past. The future would have come with or without the pandemic. It is up to Canadians to decide how they will work and live in the circumstances in which we find ourselves once the virus has been vanquished.
A major annual celebration will soon be here. May 1 — May Day — is the original international workers holiday, not the end of summer Labour Day celebration. The COVID-19 pandemic is one of many trials endured by workers around the world. In time, sooner than we think, we will reflect on the impact of this new pandemic on work and labour on May Day and remember how people in a wide range of essential positions got us through it.
Jason Russell has a Ph.D. in history from York University and is an associate professor at SUNY Empire State College in Buffalo, New York. He lives in London, Ontario. Find out more here.