The Ottawa Board of Trade, now known as the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, is a leading character in the story of the economic, civic and social growth of the City of Ottawa. For the past 160 years, the Chamber has been one of the most active and vocal groups participating in the commercial evolution and transformation of our region – a resilient pioneer whose origins predate Queen Victoria’s proclamation that Bytown (as Ottawa was then called) had been chosen as the Capital City of the “Province of Canada.” This is the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce’s story...
Launched to support our rapidly expanding lumber town
In the years between 1832 and 1857, our region was a burgeoning lumber town whose population grew from 4,000 to well over 10,000. During this time, shipments of dry goods, tea, sugar, wines and liquors, salted fish, wheat, flour, beef,pork, oak, iron, and more were arriving via the Rideau Canal.
In 1847, Bytown became a legally designated town and within seven years, in 1854, it was incorporated as a city. On June 10, 1857, an Act of Parliament launched the Ottawa Board of Trade. The Board’s mandate was to protect and advance economic prosperity, industrial opportunity and quality of life throughout our region.
The association began with 50 members and was led by John Bower Lewis – the second Mayor of Bytown, the first Mayor of Ottawa, and a Member of Parliament from 1872 to 1873.
Forward-thinking business development
From the very beginning, the Ottawa Board of Trade understood that building a thriving community required the utmost dedication, careful planning and active engagement to drive results.
As our city’s population continued to grow, new buildings, homes, schools, hospitals, bridges and roads were constructed. The Ottawa Board of Trade contributed to improvements such as the first public abattoir and a proper system of garbage collection.
By arousing public opinion, the Board facilitated the introduction of tap water to residents via the Thomas C. Keefer plant in 1875. Into the 20th century and decade by decade, the Ottawa Board of Trade was relentless in its pursuit of opportunities to help our region advance, thrive and grow.
Maintaining and expanding railways and highways was a priority, as was the widening, levelling and straightening of existing local roads. During the 1930s when jobs and money were scarce, the Board launched the Ottawa Junior Board of Trade to develop future leaders aged 20-35.
Turning its attention to public safety, it conducted a survey of traffic and parking conditions, followed by a survey of housing conditions.
Investing in existing and future industries and businesses
At the municipal level, the Ottawa Board of Trade’s influence grew. In 1954, it helped organize and fund the Eastern Ontario Board of Trade, later renamed the Eastern Ontario Development Association (EODA), whose mandate was to encourage industrial location in Ottawa.
The Board then proposed, successfully, that the City of Ottawa should not only give the association a grant, but also adopt it as its industrial agent. In the years that followed, the Board worked closely with the EODA, the municipal government and many other groups to invest in initiatives that could better attract new industries and businesses.
Adaptable to the most pressing issues of the day
In an era before Internet searches and digital information, the Ottawa Board of Trade was a magnet for local and foreign enquiries. These included requests for directions to businesses, introductions to potential clients, questions about the costs of housing or schooling, and appeals for advice or assistance to resolve business problems.
There were also requests for contacts in the business world in other cities or countries, and enquiries from tourists who wanted to know what to see,what to do, and where to stay.
The sheer number of committees in earlier years is a testament to how much work was being taken on. These included committees dedicated to community development, industrial exploration, agriculture, civic affairs, traffic, tourism, fire prevention, department stores, specialty shops, the Public Appeals Review Board, civic affairs publicity, special events, motor vehicle fleet training, provincial affairs, national affairs, membership, and even forestry (reforestation).
The proof is all around us
For the past 160 years, what is now known as the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce has been the voice of business – a conduit of advocacy, dialogue and connections. It has been instrumental in conceiving, sponsoring and/or advocating for the establishment of what have become historic and defining mainstays in Ottawa: the Sparks Street Mall, the Canadian Tulip Festival, the Changing of the Guard on Parliament Hill, and the Eastern Ontario Institute of Technology (now Algonquin College), to name a few.
The Chamber has been at the forefront of advocacy for leadership, learning and technological advancement. It has developed courses for businesses, guided decisions about taxation and pension reform, and participated in diplomatic relations.
The Chamber has also administered group insurance plans, monitored budgets at every government level, and obtained funding for business, social and charitable causes far and wide.
What this means for our future
Today, we are surrounded by modern conveniences and comforts borne by the sacrifices of previous generations. With roots firmly planted, our future is more about strengthening foundations and reaching for new heights.
A membership with the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce isn’t just about attending functions, accessing information and services, and networking for our own professional advancement.
It’s a means to deepen our connection with our sense of citizenship and community. Being an active member further demonstrates a respect for everything it took to build what we have – and it confirms our distinct awareness that we need to keep pursuing economic, civic, social and cultural transformation in an ever-changing world. As history has shown, our identity is shaped not only by what we inherit, but also by what we pioneer.
Did you know?
- The concept of a Board of Trade, also known as a Chamber of Commerce, is thousands of years old. The genesis can arguably be traced back to the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, where industry, trade and commerce officials were counted among the king’s most trusted advisors.
- In 1599, the first modern Chambre de Commerce was launched in Marseilles, France. Semi-governmental in nature, the idea spread across France and Europe. Associations in Great Britain preferred a more arm’s length relationship with government, and it’s this model that inspired the Canadian Boards of Trade—the first of which was established in Halifax in 1750, with two more launched in Quebec City and Montreal at the turn of the 19th century, and the Ottawa Board of Trade being the eleventh association to become incorporated in 1857.
- The earliest Canadian Boards of Trade were empowered by provincial legislation to establish a board of arbitration to hear financial and business disputes (providing all parties agreed to it). Their decisions were as binding as a court of law. Boards of Trade also had the right to establish a board of examiners to screen potential inspectors of flour, meal and other goods. Originally, Boards of Trade had a local focus. Over time, this focus expanded to include interests and input into provincial, national and global matters.
- During a speech delivered in 1884, a certain politician is alleged to have made this statement 12 years before becoming prime minister of Canada: “I would not wish to say anything disparaging of Ottawa, but it is hard to say anything good of it. The capital is not a handsome city, and does not appear likely to become one either.”
- Another future prime minister was far more optimistic: “We may not have the largest, the wealthiest or the most cosmopolitan capital in the world, but I believe that with Ottawa’s natural and picturesque setting, given stately proportions and a little careful planning, we can have the most beautiful capital in the world.”