Hearts & Hands: People, Business, & the Making of a Community

This morning I had the great privilege of addressing a packed Regent Theatre at the official Oshawa centenary celebration.  The invitation was for the Oshawa Chamber to assist in telling the story of our city through the lens of the business community and its role in the growth of the City of Oshawa.  When I finally sat down to draft this talk, I spent some time thinking about the most stripped-down, essential building blocks of community – hearts, hands, and daylight.  Occasionally, business gets a bad rap in the broader societal narrative and so, alongside celebrating Oshawa’s 100th birthday, this was also a great opportunity to happily reflect on what a great enabler businesses, especially family businesses, are of community building. 

Here’s the speech, as presented this morning:

Today, I am deeply honored to delve into the compelling history of our city through the lens of business – the relationship between our people, the local businesses they’ve built, and the vibrant community these elements have created together.  The story of Oshawa and its people is inseparable from the story of our many businesses and the impact of the people and families who created and operated them.

Photo from the first Oshawa Old Home Week, August 2024
Photo from the first Oshawa Old Home Week, August 2024. The aim of Old Home Week was to invite former residents back each year for a reunion.

Although we’re here today to celebrate 100 years of Oshawa being a City, it’s worth noting Oshawa’s history as a meeting place is much older. Going back slightly you’ll learn that Oshawa was originally incorporated as a village in 1849.  Before then, business, or as it was known as far back as the 1700’s, “trade” has now long been the connective tissue around which this community was built.  Indigenous communities that first settled here did so because of its location within long held trade corridors. And, all of this early trade was enabled by the harbour, a massive and still-growing trade advantage that we continue to enjoy great benefit from in 2024.  The ability to transport resources such as coal, and eventually asphalt, steel, concrete and other key enablers of prosperity have given Oshawa a competitive growth advantage, and the proof of that is all around us every day.

But the harbour didn’t build this city.  People did that.  The City of Oshawa is self-made.

Oshawa’s journey began with a spirit of self-determination and resilience. Our city crest, emblazoned with ‘Labour and Prosper,’ echoes this sentiment.

By now you may be wondering how far into this I could get before I mentioned the McLaughlins?  By the way; does anyone here know if our carriage works is still the largest in the British Empire?

The City’s slogan, that core value to labour and prosper, is rooted in the early endeavours of families like the McLaughlins. Their transition from the McLaughlin Carriage Works to General Motors of Canada is a cornerstone of our industrial heritage, embodying the drive and ambition, and indeed – innovation, that have come to define us.  It’s more than that: it is an epic, Hollywood-scale tale of entrepreneurship that starts with a family’s vision and perseverance.

And yet, the backbone of Oshawa’s economy and – if you will, it’s personality – has always been its smaller family businesses. However large the contribution of our industrial economy has been over decades of cyclical expansion and contraction, it has long been the small family businesses who have shaped Oshawa’s place and identity.  These are the people who form the community committees; who round up the volunteers, who sponsor our kids’ sports and buy our collective Girl Guide cookies and it is their spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation that propels us forward. Today, I want to highlight a few such pillars of our community, but also highlight that this is in no way a complete list:

These businesses are not just economic entities; they are part of our collective identity, contributing significantly to the fabric of our community and to Oshawa’s identity as a self-made place.  New businesses, new industries, and new people have always been and will always be welcome, but they are welcome to join an established and uncommonly resilient community that built, rebuilt, and is rebuilding itself time and time again.

Our history is replete with tales of compassion and solidarity. The story of the McLaughlin Carriage factory fire and the ensuing community support is a testament to Oshawa’s character.  The story of an Oshawa that, unlike many other cities on this continent, did not become a ghost town when one of it’s largest employers closed their doors.  Rather, Oshawa’s business community just filled the void with even more growth and innovation.

This is a narrative that underscores our ability to come together in times of need, embodying the true spirit of ‘Labour and Prosper.’  It also highlights our entrepreneurial spirit. From the McLaughlin family’s ventures to the educational institutions like Durham College, Ontario Tech University, Trent University and now Queen’s University, we have transitioned into a knowledge-based economy with a vast wealth of opportunities in post-secondary education, health care, and, with the arrival of the new Ontario Power Generation headquarters, clean energy.  This evolution reflects our adaptability and foresight, ensuring Oshawa remains a beacon of innovation and prosperity.

Looking forward, Oshawa is poised for even greater achievements. Our commitment to innovation, as demonstrated by Project Arrow, and advancements in healthcare, and becoming the physical hub of the largest green energy sector in the world are but a glimpse of what we can accomplish. The diversity and talent within our community are the engines that will drive us into a future filled with promise and opportunity.

On that note, I just want to take a moment to flag that on this International Women’s Day, it’s pertinent to acknowledge the strides we’ve made towards inclusivity. The GM Assembly plant’s current workforce composition of in the neighbourhood of 50% women is a milestone, as are the appointments of the smart, eminently qualified female leaders on our City’s senior leadership team and now at our college.  This is a further reflection of what I personally hope is our shared commitment to building a community that values diversity and equality.

Photo of inside the Regent Theatre during the Oshawa Centenary celebration, March 8th, 2024
A packed house at the Regent Theatre this morning.

In closing, the story of Oshawa is one of collective effort and shared vision. It’s a narrative that intertwines the hearts, hands, and dreams of people, businesses, and the community into a single, unified expression of prosperity and inclusivity. As we look to the future, let us remember the foundations upon which our city was built and strive to carry forward that legacy of innovation, resilience, and community spirit.  And hey – let’s be proud of ourselves and ask how each of us can continue to embody this tradition through our creativity and efforts.

The organization I currently serve, the Greater Oshawa Chamber of Commerce, was founded in 1928 with a vision to build community prosperity.  It is such a great privilege for our organization to pursue this mission in a community full of like-minded and remarkable people and businesses.  Thank you once again for this opportunity to share this journey with you all. Together, let us continue to build on the remarkable legacy of Oshawa, fostering a community that thrives on collaboration, innovation, and mutual respect. Here’s to the hearts and hands of Oshawa—past, present, and future.

Jason King

Jason King

As the CEO of the Greater Oshawa Chamber of Commerce, I blend entrepreneurship and B2B tech marketing expertise to bring you essential news and insights. Join me in navigating the business landscape as we work together to foster growth, collaboration, and build community prosperity in the heart of Oshawa.


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