A specialized agency of the United Nations that predates both the United Nations and the establishment of the Bretton Woods institutions, the International Labour Organization (ILO) was founded at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and was part of the Treaty of Versailles.
Although Canada was not part of the initial Commission on International Labour Legislation of the Peace Conference that was “called upon...to draft plans for an organization which had no parallel in the history of politics,” Canada gained “international recognition of her national maturity by her admission to the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization as an original Member.” Canada also became the first ILO member to send a woman to participate in the governing body, in 1923. But Canada’s most unique contribution remains that it provided a wartime home for the ILO, at McGill University. In Canada, the ILO prepared its postwar policy, including its approach to decolonization, and readied itself for a more outward-looking approach as part of a soon-to-emerge UN system. During that same time, the ILO reaffirmed the “truth” of its 1919 constitutional affirmation that “lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice” in the historic 1944 constitutional annex adopted at the International Labour Conference in Philadelphia (the Declaration of Philadelphia). A renowned international labour official and subsequent director-general of the ILO, C. Wilfred Jenks, delivered these words as part of a thank-you speech to the Canadian government: “This is hallowed ground in the history of the ILO. Here we kept alive in a world at war the ideal and practice of international collaboration in pursuit of social justice in a world of freedom.”
This paper is a deliberate exercise in remembering the hallowed ground in the history of the ILO. It recalls the historical ideal of international labour law (ILL) in the ILO’s founding to explain the renewed relevance of ILL in the midst of global restructuring. The paper traces a similar trajectory through the story of ILL in the Canadian courts. Throughout, the paper suggests that the evolution of ILL, internationally and in Canada, constitutes a crucial basis upon which to build ILL’s transnational futures.