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Why I volunteer for the Ottawa Board of Trade

I first learned about the importance of volunteerism at the dinner table, whether that was on Friday night welcoming the Sabbath, during holidays and festivals or Sunday Funday family get-togethers.

Led by my late grandparents, my parents, many aunts, uncles and cousins, conversations regarding the essence of life were constantly one of giving rather than receiving. The starting point was always the “community tent.”

From a very early age, I wanted to follow the many examples that I grew up with, and as I look back with reflection today, how blessed am I that throughout my personal and professional life journey, the gift of community has always been at the forefront.

So, when I was asked to be board chair of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce in 2016 and then the Ottawa Board of Trade (OBoT) in 2018, it seemed to be a perfect fit as I truly love the community in which we live, a gifted community on so many levels, the “gift of Ottawa.”

Little did I know then nor might I have ever envisaged that our board, and OBoT’s various councils and committees representing diverse businesses across this city, would face a pandemic. It dramatically affected virtually all our members and the business community at large. While our role as a board of trade is focused on advocacy, COVID-19 was a call to action.

Literally overnight in March 2020, people were facing the prospect of losing a lifetime of work and blessings, and that has had a dramatic economic impact on a city known for its steady and consistent business climate, events, festivals and tourism.

The devastation for local business owners was enormous and our job at OBoT was to help support them – from restaurants to hair salons; from real estate and construction to technology companies; from retailers to professional and other services firms.

We have always advocated for all businesses and had pre-existing relationships with every level of government as well as access to the decision-makers. We were in a unique position to help develop policy and collaboratively triage goals in what became, obviously, a substantial crisis.

While the entry point to the opportunity to have OBoT membership is only about the cost of a coffee a day, we knew everyone needed our help and the pandemic period was not the time to aggressively ask for membership dollars. That said, we have had moments of joy during this difficult period where our support services, relationships and events have helped business owners to connect remotely, and that has helped their own businesses survive. I am confident we showed our value.

Our president and CEO, Sueling Ching – with the full support of our board – was on the front line daily, listening to the business community and taking those concerns to the Government of Ontario, the Government of Canada and the City of Ottawa to ensure that businesses received much needed help.

Most recently, in collaboration with the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, Invest Ottawa and Commissionaires Ottawa, OBoT rolled out the rapid testing kit program to help bring safety into the workplace so we could open our doors on pace with the vaccination program of Ottawa Public Health. We spoke often with the city’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, and her colleagues.

In just the first two weeks alone of rapid test kit distribution, we supplied more than 25,000 individual test kits to 275-plus businesses and were fully booked for days before we even opened our doors. The free kits will be given out for most of the summer. Information and appointments can be booked on our website.

Dozens of business leaders, from SMEs to large corporations, have quietly yet actively come together under the OBoT community tent during this pandemic and have generously donated their time, wisdom and sage counsel.

Like me, their engagement is all in the name of love and passion for our city.

I will forever remain grateful that we found a group willing to work so hard to help us get through this – together.

And now as we move forward together into recovery, if you are not currently an OBoT member, I invite you to join us in the community tent to share your wisdom and counsel and become a part of our identity and advocacy.

Ian Sherman is the chair of the Ottawa Board of Trade as well as a consultant and former tax partner at EY Ottawa.