A Story and an Invitation

These remarks were given at a celebration of the International Labour Organization’s centenary on Thursday, August 15, 2019 in  Montréal — during a special gathering of 100 decent work activists and advocates called My Labour Our Future.

I’m Colette Murphy — the Executive Director of the Atkinson Foundation — and on behalf of everyone here this evening, I’d like to thank Principal Fortier, Brian, Hassan and Minister Duclos for joining our “people’s celebration” of the ILO’s centenary. 

It is good to be here with you — in Centre-Sud, a neighbourhood with deep activist roots not unlike the places many of us call home. And in this uncommonly beautiful museum where the stories of the “people’s struggles” for decent work reside. 

I’d like to close tonight’s program with a story and an invitation. 

Last night, Kevin told us about the perilous route his diplomatic predecessors took to get to Canada where the ILO could hunker down during World War II. He mentioned Edward Phelan, an Irish national and a senior ILO official. Phelan and his co-worker Richard Mortished made their way by car through the Pyrennes to the Spanish frontier reaching the border two days after it was officially closed by General Franco. How they got across is another story, but let’s just say that they kept their wits about them and got lucky. It could have so easily gone the other way for these two.

They could have been turned back. They could have been arrested. They could have been too afraid to even make the attempt. They might not have found a co-conspirator willing to host them in another country. But that’s not how the story unfolded. 

They did make it all the way to Montreal and McGill where they laid the groundwork for “ILO 2.0” — a newer, stronger, better model than the first — braver, smarter and even more determined to turn a massive setback into a historic leap for workers around the world. It seems they succeeded. 30 years later, the ILO won a Nobel Peace Prize for exceptional progress toward the goal of peace through justice. 

Imagine then, if you can, what would have been lost — or never realized — had two decent work advocates (really no different from you or me) had just given up in the face of such obstacles and threats? 

(Oh, by the way, did I mention that Edward and Richard crossed the border into Spain on Thursday, August 15th, 1940? Exactly 79 years ago today.)

Now for the invitation. 

When you return home, please take this story and the others with you. The stories you’ve heard over meals and during conversations on the stage. The stories you learned as you explored this magnificent hall tonight. And your own stories too — the forgotten ones we’ve invited you to remember and the stories you turn to often when you need encouragement or just a good laugh.

The ILO story is only one of the stories that too few people have heard. 

There was a time when narratives were delivered by newspapers every morning to a city — by several of you in this room when you were much younger. Now they are carried by the Internet to the world every second — by all of us. [Holds up iPhone] And there is way more information available than any of us can consume. 

But still we’re hungry. We’re hungry for the kind of vision that produced the ILO and everything else grassroots organizers have ever fought for and won over the last century.

When we tell these stories, we build our narrative muscles. Together, we generate narrative power to throw light on human rights, the need for social protection and social dialogue, and the characteristics of decent work.

It’s time to reclaim Canada’s second official statutory holiday — Labour Day — as a day for all Canadians to tell the stories of their labour, to make that labour visible, and to express their gratitude to each other. Labour Day is after all our day. We inherited it from those who earned it back in 1894 through lock-outs, walk-outs and relentless organizing. 

It’s time to take on the persistent narrative that Labour Day is merely the last vacation day before school starts. Let’s feed the country’s political imagination with a new vision for the future of work — one that demonstrates that Canada sees and values everyone’s labour.

So, this year on September 2, I hope you will tell your favourite work story and invite others to do the same.

Ask them to imagine themselves as characters in a story in a museum exhibit that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will visit on the 150th anniversary of the ILO. 

And don’t forget to ask them to join your fight — our fight — right now to make the future of work decent and dignifying.

Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your commitment. And thank you for your attention tonight.