"This is Hallowed Ground": Canada and International Labour Law

Canada in International Law at 150 and Beyond Paper No. 22

April 2, 2018

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.

Part of Series

Canada in International Law at 150 and Beyond/Canada et droit international : 150 ans d’histoire et perspectives d’avenir

Marking 150 years since Confederation provides an opportunity for Canadian international law practitioners and scholars to reflect on Canada’s past, present and future in international law and governance. This series of essays, written in the official language chosen by the authors, that provides a critical perspective on Canada’s past and present in international law, surveys the challenges that lie before us and offers renewed focus for Canada’s pursuit of global justice and the rule of law. The project leaders were Oonagh E. Fitzgerald, director of the International Law Research Program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI); Valerie Hughes, CIGI senior fellow, adjunct assistant professor of law at Queen’s University and former director at the World Trade Organization; and Mark Jewett, CIGI senior fellow, counsel to the law firm Bennett Jones, and former general counsel and corporate secretary of the Bank of Canada. The series was published as a book titled Reflections on Canada’s Past, Present and Future in International Law/Réflexions sur le passé, le présent et l’avenir du Canada en matière de droit international in spring 2018.

About the Author

Adelle Blackett is a full professor and the Canada Research Chair in Transnational Labour Law and Development at the Faculty of Law, McGill University, where she directs the Labour Law and Development Research Laboratory.