DRAAG To Host 2023 AAO Conference

The Archives Association of Ontario, along with the Durham Region Area Archives Group, is pleased to announce the 2023 Annual Conference to be held from May 10th to May 12th on the traditional territory of the Mississauga at the Cobourg Community Centre in Cobourg, Ontario.

Theme: Archives Rx: Healthy Collections and Communities

“Over recent years, there has been a growing understanding of the impact that creative or cultural activity can have on health and wellbeing” (Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance). Let’s explore together how Archives can build healthy collections and communities.

Stay tuned for more information!  #aao23conf

Call for Papers!

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Archives Awareness Week 2021

Spring is here and what a fabulous way to celebrate the new season than by celebrating the amazing archival collections in our communities. The Archives Association of Ontario has designated this week, April 5th to 9th, as Archives Awareness Week in Ontario. It is a week for those of us in the archival field to share with the public some of the amazing items we are privileged to work with on a daily basis.

This year, much like last year, sees many local archives closed to visitors and researchers. While our sites may be closed to the public, we are working hard behind the scenes to make our collections accessible during this challenging time. While the doors have been closed, archivist in our communities have been creating online exhibits from their collections, they have been working to digitize and make available online aspects of their collections and they have been speaking to groups small and large via Zoom or WEBEX.

We thought Archives Awareness Week would be the perfect time to highlight some of the amazing work local archives have created during the pandemic.

Clarington Museums and Archives has launched their brand new Virtual Museum. This site provides the visitor with links to all of their new online exhibits and resources. They have even created a virtual version of their extremely popular Spirit Walk. This interactive map will “walk” you through local ghost stories from the comfort of your living room. Click here to visit their Virtual Museum.

The Archives at the Whitby Public Library launched a virtual exhibit highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on their community. The exhibit was part of a larger project focused on collecting images, documents and items that will tell this history of the pandemic from the perspective of Whitby residents. Click here to visit their Whitby COVID-19 Stories exhibit.

The Oshawa Museum shifted gears when their site had to close to the public and launched three new online exhibits. These exhibits focused on a variety of topics, from COVID-19 in Oshawa, to the 100th Anniversary of Lakeview Park and a virtual walking tour of the history of Downtown Oshawa. All of their online exhibits and resources can be found on their newly revamped Oshawa Museum website.

The Oshawa Public Libary Local History Room updated and expanded access to their digital collection of books and pamphlets that are now a part of the Internet Archives. Of particular interest to researchers is their collection of City of Oshawa Directories. These directories are a gold mine for researchers, providing information on where a person lived, what they did for a living and how often they may, or may not, have moved. Check out the city directories, and other resources, here.

The Pickering Public Library continued to add to their Local History Digital Archive. The site provides online access to documents, photographs and newspapers that help researchers. The online collection has provided access to researchers during the pandemic and shared the collection with both local researchers and those from far away. Click here to search their online archive.

The Northumberland County Archives and Museum continued to make their collection accessible online through Archeion. Archeion is Ontario’s Archival Information Network. The database is an online research tool the provides researchers with access to descriptions of archival records held by member institutions of the Archives Association of Ontario. Check out the records of the Northumberland County Archives and Museum here.

The Port Hope Archives ensured that their researchers could continue learning about their collections by developing a wide variety of online exhibits. From their History Video Series, to their As I Will It exhibit, the archives worked to provide access to their collection throughout the pandemic. The As I Will It exhibit examines the difference between a probate and a will and highlights some of the important information you can find in a probate. Check out the exhibit here.

These are just a few of the ways that archives in our community have worked behind the scene during this pandemic. If you have examples of the ways other local archives are working to share the collections during this time, please email Jennifer at archivist@oshawamuseum.org and we will be more than happy to share their work throughout the week.

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Implicit Bias and the Oshawa Museum’s Archival Collection

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

This post was originally published on the Oshawa Museum’s Blog, December 4, 2020.

What is implicit bias? 

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State  University defines it as such: also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. 

I have previously written about implicit bias in the development of the Oshawa Museum’s archival collection.  At that time, I was looking at how absences in the collection due to the implicit bias of those collecting has created an incomplete history of our community. The collection contains a great deal related to early industrialists, politicians, and the wealthy, with little related to the everyday person, women, or people of colour. This is true of archival collections across Canada and the Western world. It has been recognized, and archivists are working to address the issue and find ways to develop collections that better represent the entirety of our communities.

It wasn’t until this past summer that I became aware of a bias of my own.  I was working through the Lowry Collection, an amazing series of photographs of Lakeview Park during the 1930s that also happens to be one of our most racially and ethnically diverse photograph collections, that I finally noticed an issue with our database descriptions.

The photograph I was looking at was one of my favourites.  It shows a young couple, hand-in-hand, posing for the camera.  In the shadows you can see the outline of the photographer holding their brownie camera, and the popularity of the park is seen all around the subjects.  The photograph is unusual, particularly for the time period, in that it is a young Black man and a young white woman holding hands. This is where I finally took note of something I should have noted long before. 


The description is as follows: “B&W photo removed from a damaged photo album. Image is of a young African-Canadian and a young woman standing beside one another. The man is wearing a white hat and shirt and dark trousers and sweater. The young woman is wearing a long white coat. The shadow of the photographer is visible. Lakeview Park. Circa 1930s”.

Do you see the implicit bias?  The assumption made that, unless otherwise noted, the people in the images are white. This is an example of implicit bias by the author of the database notation, and it is throughout the accession record for this collection and the entire archival collection.

As part of our work in the archival field, archivists are working to examine archival descriptions for implicit bias, or in some cases outright racism, and begin the work to remove the bias and make the descriptions inclusive. In fact, as part of the programme committee for the 2021 Archives Association of Ontario Conference, I had the privilege of reading several paper proposals examining this issue within different institutions and how they are working to address it.

As for me, I began addressing this starting with the Lowry Collection. Archival descriptions will be edited to remove the implicit bias, and a notation that the description has been changed and the reasoning behind the editing process added to the record.

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Canadian Nursing Sister in WWI – Nursing Sister Emsley

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist at the Oshawa Museum

Throughout history, women have always played a role in warfare generally working to nurse the wounded. 

In Canada, nurses had served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps since the 1885 Northwest Rebellion and compiled a distinguished record during the South African War (1899-1902). The Canadian Army Nursing Corps was established in 1908, but had only five permanent members by the start of the First World War. In August 1914, the Matron-in-Chief, Major Margaret Macdonald, an experienced nurse who had served in South Africa, received permission to enlist 100 nurses. Almost all were drawn from hospitals, universities, and medical professions from across Canada and the United States.

The nurses were granted the relative rank, pay and allowances of an army lieutenant.  This distinction was important, as they became the first women in the modern world to hold military commissions as officers. A special rank was created for nurses starting with lieutenant/nursing sister and they could move up the ranks. Canada remained the only country to commission women as officers until the mid-1940s.

The first contingent of Canadian troops to leave for England in September 1914 included 101 nurses, led by Matron in Chief Margaret Macdonald. Unlike nursing units in other allied forces, the Canadian nurses were fully integrated within the military structure and assigned rank within the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Margaret Macdonald would become the first woman in the British Empire to be granted the rank of major. 

Two Canadian nurses pose in service dress uniforms.
George Metcalf Archival Collection
CWM 19920085-353 https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/people/in-uniform/nurses/

By the end of the war, a total of 3141 women, over one third of Canada’s qualified nurses, had served with the medical corps. Of the over 2500 who saw overseas service, about 1000 worked in France and Belgium. The remainder were posted in Canadian and British hospitals in England, with a small number working in the Mediterranean and on the Russian front. Most nurses were initially posted to stationary and general hospitals, housed within existing facilities – schools, convents, hotels, etc. – or in purpose-built shelters. However, it quickly became clear that nursing services were needed closer to the front, and a number of nurses would work in casualty clearing stations near the front lines. There they would administer emergency care to wounded soldiers. In addition to treating battle wounds, army nurses treated contagious diseases such as tuberculosis and would assume an important role in confronting the terrible flu epidemic that swept through the general population in the closing months of the war.

Nursing Sister Lydia Evangeline Emsley was born on March 26, 1884 in Lindsay, Ontario to William Emsley and Susie Major.  Together the couple had five children, three sons and two daughters. The family moved a great deal, even living in Brandon, Manitoba before arriving back in Ontario prior to the start of the First World War.

When the hostilities began in 1914, William was quick to enlist and head overseas as Chaplain for the 16th Regiment.   By the end of the war, five members of the Emsley family had enlisted with the CEF, including daughter Lydia.

According to her attestation paper, Lydia enlisted with the Canadian Army Medical Corps on October 8, 1915.  Lydia was a trained nurse who already belonged to the Active Militia.

Nursing Sister Emsley

Upon arriving overseas as part of the second contingent, Lydia was stationed at the No. 2 Stationary Hospital located in Outreau, France. 

The No 2 Canadian Stationary Hospital was the first Canadian Unit to be stationed in France. The hospital was established in November 1914 in the Hotel du Golf at Le Touquet.  At this time, the hospital had 320 beds but that number quickly rose to 520. In March 1915, 10 re-enforcements arrived, making the total Nursing Staff up to 42. In September 1915, the unit moved to Outreau, taking over the site of No.2, British Stationary Hospital. It was after this move that Lydia joined the nursing staff at the hospital.  

A stationary hospital was slightly smaller than a General Hospital and was located closer to the frontlines; it was the midway point between clearing stations, which were very close to the front, and the general and specialized hospitals, which were farther away from the fighting.

With the conclusion of the war, Emsley became one of 317 nurses awarded a Royal Red Cross and one of 167 nurses who was received a Mentioned in Dispatch citation.

Mention in Dispatch

Lydia returned home from the war and resumed life.  Sometime between 1930 and 1934, Lydia married Dr. Frederick Donevan, the widower of Victoria Donevan, another nursing sister with ties to Oshawa.  Victoria and her husband joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps together in October of 1915 and both served overseas until the end of the war in 1918.  Sadly, Victoria contracted tuberculosis while overseas and she died of kidney failure on January 7, 1930.   Because her death is directory attributed to her service overseas, Victoria in considered a war dead by the Canadian Military. Lydia became stepmother to Victoria’s daughter Constance who was just 11 when her mother died.

All of our nursing sister exhibited intense bravery and compassion in the face of horrors no one could be prepared for and played a vital role in the Canadian war effort.

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Porches of Northumberland County

By Abigail Miller, Archivist at Northumberland County Archives and Museum

Northumberland County Archives and Museum has been officially closed to the public since Thursday, March 12, 2020. Katie and I are fortunate to be able to continue working from home by responding to research requests, continuing preparations to make our collection accessible online, re-developing policies to adapt to our post-COVID19 world, and most pressingly, looking to our community to document history in the making.

It is a humbling experience to be non-essential. Day by day, amidst disruptions to every facet of our personal and professional lives, we learn and relearn what that term means for us. As an institution that strives to be a vital participant in the processes of collecting and interpreting meaning, the unfolding impact of COVID-19 concentrates our sector’s role towards prioritizing people’s present needs and building assurance that our experiences are real, they matter, and we’ll get through this together.

Local photographer, Molly Taylor of Centre Oak Photography tapped into the local zeitgeist when she put out a call on Facebook for those interested in a free, on-your-porch photoshoot. With a little competition to sweeten the deal, the project garnered a very enthusiastic response from participants across Northumberland County.  Mike and Erin Noonan of Roseneath were happy to take Molly up on her offer:

“This photo shoot was something that really lifted our spirits and gave us something to look forward to.  When Molly was pulling in the driveway my kids could hardly contain their excitement…our place used to have a swinging door.  You can see Ella, my daughter on her bike didn’t even have time to put shoes on.  In our photo we wanted to capture how our days were being spent…because I know one day we will look back at this memory.  My oldest daughter Ava has not stopped baking since being home, Ella has toured all over our property on her bike, Brock is wearing his tractor battery out and Mike and I are just trying to stay sane and enjoy each other’s company over many glasses of vino.”

Mike, Erin, Ava, Ella, and Brock Noonan – March 28, 2020. Photo by Centre Oak Photography.

The emotional resonance of this project is profound. We are very honoured that Molly, with the permission of all participants, will be donating this catalogue of hilariously staged and achingly sincere photographs to Northumberland County Archives and Museum as one representation of Northumberland’s COVID-19 story.  The full series can be viewed on Centre Oak Photography’s Facebook page.


Molly Taylor and family – March 28, 2020. Photo by Centre Oak Photography

We want to encourage everyone to document their COVID-19 experiences. Your first-hand accounts – your impressions, reactions, emotions, coping mechanisms – however mundane or difficult, are valuable. You may find yourself compiling photos, videos, letters, journal entries, signs, art, even dated to-do lists and grocery lists – these materials become touchstones of understanding for our future selves and historians.

If you would like to share your COVID-19 experience you may email archives@northumberlandcounty.ca, call 905-372-3329 x2242, or send mail to 555 Courthouse Rd. Cobourg, ON K9A 5J6. Please provide your name, contact information and your story.

Take care. We’re all in this together.

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Online Heritage Collections at the Oshawa Public Libraries

By Nicole Adams, Local History and Genealogy Librarian at the Oshawa Public Library

Exploring history from home has never been easier. We have been building our online collections for years and are always looking for new ways to engage the community and build our knowledge.

Digitized Collections at Internet Archive   

We are in the process of digitizing some gems from our local history collection and are making them available online through the Internet Archive.  A particular highlight is the Oshawa City Directories from 1921-1969.  City directories contain a wealth of information for genealogists, researchers, and everyday history enthusiasts. These books tell the story of our past by including names and information about residents as well as businesses in Oshawa through the years. Inside you’ll find addresses and occupations of householders, complete business directories, and much more

Oshawa Newspaper Index  

This is your first step to finding newspaper articles in our collection.  We have not yet scanned all our papers and made them available online, but this index lets you search for a topic or person and get the dates when articles or notices about them appeared in the Oshawa papers.  Usually, we can scan and email scans to you.  However, the actual papers are still on microfilm which we can only access when the library is open, so requests will be filled once we re-open to the public.

The Oshawa Museum has made the earliest newspapers, from 1862 to 1930, available online through the Canadian Community Digital Archives. The Oshawa Public Library will be working to continue this project and provide access to Oshawa’s newspapers from 1930 to 1970.

Globe and Mail Newspaper Archive

Since our newspapers are not yet online, a great resource to help fill in the gaps is the Globe and Mail Newspaper Archive, which you can access for free with your Oshawa Library card.

Don’t have a card yet?  Get one now!

Heritage Images 

We maintain a growing photograph collection of historical events, places, and people of Oshawa. Explore the collection, leave comments or questions and help to build our image collection by donating copies or scans of your photographs.


Do you ever wonder exactly where old Oshawa photos were taken and what the area looks like now? Using #HistoryPin we have pinned some of our images of old Oshawa to Google Street View, so that you can scroll back through time. You can also add images of your own to the project.

Research Inquiries

If you require assistance in pursuing or identifying local history or genealogy information available within the Oshawa collection, you are invited to submit a request https://oshlib.ca/contact


Nicole Adams


Local History and Genealogy Librarian

Oshawa Public Libraries, Local History Room

65 Bagot Street, Oshawa, ON L1N 1N2

905-579-6111 ext. 5243

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Connecting the Past with the Future

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist at the Oshawa Museum

What a surreal time we are currently living through. In the not to distant future, historians will study this time and those of us who collect history can help those future historians with our actions now.

Each institution that is part of DRAAG has something in their collection that highlights the human experience during a tumultuous time. The Oshawa Museum has an amazing collection of letters written home by a young Oshawa resident as he served in the trenches of World War I.   His perspective, his words, help to humanize a time in history that is well documented but often in a clinical, statistical   manner.   

While official documents outline the impact of the war, they cover important facts such as casualties, number of Canadians injured, the financial impacts of the war, letters such as those written by Pvt. Garrow provide us with the personal impact.  While the entirety of the collection is amazing there is one interaction that stand out to me because of the simplicity.  In a letter dated May 7, 1916, Garrow gently reminds his sister that is he writing her back as often as he can but between the mail going out only twice a week and him not getting a great deal of time to write while in the trenches, it takes him a bit longer to respond.  This interaction between brother and sister is a bit of normalcy in the midst of such a traumatic time and it helps those of us reading it 100+ years later connect on that human level. Those of us with siblings understand all to well the sigh that had to have escaped from Garrow when he read Lillian’s letter.

If you are interested in reading Garrow’s letters, the Oshawa Museum has an online exhibit that makes these letters available digitally. We also have some photos of the family along with all of the official documentation sent to the family available through this exhibit.

Check it out here:  https://lettersfromthetrenches.wordpress.com/

The collecting and preserving of letters, diaries and journals such as Garrow’s is so important for us in the future to understand that human side of history. Currently, we are living through an historic event.  My daughter mentioned how in 20 or 30 years she will be telling her children what it was like to live through this pandemic. She is entirely correct. Each of us can help future historians understand the human side of the pandemic by writing about our experiences. Then, once this has passed, donating our writings to the appropriate local archive.

One of the ways the Oshawa Museum is working to document the impact of COVID-19 on our community is through an online journal.  Here staff of the Museum, as well as members of the partner institutions and the public, will have an opportunity to share how life has changed living through this state of emergency.

I am also asking the Oshawa citizens consider writing a personal journal documenting their thoughts and experiences, their fears and their joys through this time.  All of these documents will then become part of the archival record of the impact of COVID-19 on Oshawa and its citizens.

For more information on the COVID-19 Oshawa online journal, check it out here: https://covid19oshawa.com/ .

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Archives Awareness Week 2020

Social distancing and self-isolation mean that Archives Awareness Week celebrations will look a little different this year.  DRAAG thought this would be a great time to celebrate archives online and the many ways we can still access archival records and resources in this uncertain time.

Each day next week, we are going to share a post or two looking at the different ways local sites have made virtual access to their collections possible. Just because we are all social distancing, doesn’t mean that we can’t stay connected.

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Who Was John Baker?

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist – Oshawa Museum

This article was originally posted on the Oshawa Museum Blog in honour of Black History Month, January 25, 2019.

John Baker is an important part of Oshawa’s history, even thought it is entirely possible he never spent any time here. Baker was one of two slaves granted freedom from slavery, along with land and money, in the will of their master Robert Isaac Dey Gray, Solicitor-General of Upper Canada. His connection to Gray, along with being named in the will, resulted in Baker gaining a level of fame and notoriety. A quick search on the internet turns up a surprising amount of information on the man and his life.

In a publication on the early history of the town of Cornwall, Ontario, author Jacob Farrand Pringle wrote about Baker and provided information about the life of the man though to be the last surviving enslaved person of African descent in both Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario).[1]   The Baker family can be traced back to a gentleman by the name of Cato Prime. Prime was native of Guinea, West Africa before being sold into slavery to John Low of New Jersey.  Prime had a daughter, named Lavine, who in turn had a daughter named Dorine, all of whom were slaves to the Low family. Dorine was given as a gift to Elizabeth Low, the daughter of John, and came with Elizabeth when she married Captain John Gray.  According to Pringle, Dorine was 17 years old when the Gray family brought her to Canada with them.

The Grays resided in Montreal from 1776 to 1784 when they moved to an area just east of Cornwall.  Dorine met and married Jacob Baker in Gray’s Creek, the area just east of Cornwall named for the Gray family. Baker’s history is unclear.  In an interview with a Toronto newspaper in 1869, John says that his father was a Dutchman; however, in his book on the history of Osgoode Hall, author James Hamilton states that Baker was a German Hessians who served with the British Army during the American Revolution.[2]  Either way, Baker was a free man while Dorine remained a slave to the Gray family.  According to Pringle, the Bakers had a large family.[3] The two eldest children, Simon and John, were born slaves as the law at the time stated that children inherited the status of their mother. Two daughters, Elizabeth and Bridget, were born free as laws had changed prior to their birth.[4] Upon the death of John Gray, Dorine and her sons became the property of Robert Isaac Dey Gray, the son of Elizabeth and John.

In that interview with the Toronto newspaper, Baker recounts his life with the Gray family. Referring to John Gray as Colonel, Baker spoke of how strict his master was.

“The Colonel had much property; he was strict and sharp, made us wear deerskin shirts and deerskin jackets, and gave us many a flogging. At these times he would pull off my jacket, and the rawhide would fly around my shoulders very fast.” [5]

Robert I.D. Gray was apparently less cruel to those he owned. After practicing law in Cornwall for a short time, he went to York and in 1797 was named the first Solicitor-General of Upper Canada. Gray took Simon Baker with him to act as his body servant.

In August 1798, Elizabeth Gray was granted 600 acres of property in Whitby Township.[6]  It is this property that connects the Baker brothers and Gray to Oshawa.  Robert Isaac Dey Gray and Simon Baker died when the ship they were travelling on, the Speedy, wrecked near Presqu’ile Point, Brighton Township. In his will, Gray finally granted the Baker family their freedom. Gray not only granted freedom to Dorine and her family, but he also made provisions for her future.  The will stipulates that £1200 from his real estate holdings be put into a fund for Dorine and that the interest be given to her annually.  He also left provisions in his will for Simon and John. To Simon, he left 200 acres of lot 11 in the second concession, as well as his clothes and a watch worth £50.  To John, he left 200 acres of lot 17 in the first concession along with £50. [7]  Land registry documents show that the property left to John was finally transferred to him on June 12, 1824.  John did not keep the property, as records indicate the lot was sold to Martin Sanford on June 14, 1824. The records are difficult to read, and it is unclear how much money John sold the lot for.[8]

john baker land registry

John Baker’s interview with the newspaper gives us glimpse into his life as a free man. After Gray’s death released Baker from slavery, he began to work for Justice William Dummer Powell.[9] While with Powell, he enlisted with the army and went to New Brunswick, fighting in the War of 1812.  According to Baker, he was with his regiment during battles at Lundy’s Lane, Fort Erie and Sackett’s Harbour. It appears that Baker was in the military until after the battle of Waterloo, where he apparently saw Napoleon and was not particularly impressed. From his interview with the Toronto newspaper, “I saw Napoleon.  He was a chunky little fellow; he rode hard and jumped ditches.”[10]

Once his time in the military ended, Baker returned to Canada and settled back in Cornwall. He worked in the area until age caught up with him.  Around 1861, he received a pension from the British government for his time in the military. John Baker died on January 18, 1871.

At the time of his death, Baker was believed to be the last person to been held in slavery in the Canadas.  Many Canadians do not know that slavery existed here.  Baker’s life helps us to better understand slavery in the Canadian context.


[1] Pringle, Jacob Farrand. Lunenburg or the Old District: its settlement and early progress : with personal recollections of the town of Cornwall, from 1824 : to which are added a history of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York and other corps; the names of all those who drew lands in the counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, up to November, 1786; and several other lists of interest to the descendants of the old settlers.  Cornwall: Standard Print House, 1890. Page 319.

[2] Hamilton, James Cleland. Osgoode Hall Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar. Toronto: The Carswell Company Ltd. 1904. Page 132.

[3] Pringle, page 319.

[4] Cornwall Community Museum Blog, “The Emancipation of Cato Prime & John Baker,” Published September 10, 2016; accessed January 22, 2019 from: https://cornwallcommunitymuseum.wordpress.com/2016/09/10/the-emancipation-of-cato-prime-john-baker/

[5] Pringle, page 321.

[6] Ontario Department of Lands and Forests. Domesday Whitby Township.  Page 174. Note, Whitby Township at that time referred to what is today the Town of Whitby and the City of Oshawa. The land that was owned by Gray was located in what is today Oshawa.

[7] In Pringle’s book, he notes that the will leaves 200 acres of lot 11 of the first concession to Simon and 200 acres of lot 17 in the second concession to John. The Domesday records indicate that the grants were for lot 17 in the first concession and lot 11 in the second concession.

[8] Ontario Land Registry – Abstract/Parcel Book, Durham (40), East Whitby, Book 189. Page 289.

[9] Of note, this is the same judge that employed Thomas Henry at the start of the War of 1812.

[10] Pringle, page 322.

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General Motors of Canada – Oshawa

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist, Oshawa Museum

This month marks the end of an industrial era in Oshawa. By the end of day on Friday, December 20, 2019 the last vehicle will have rolled off the assembly line at General Motors. Automobile production has a long history in the City of Oshawa and General Motors has been an important part of the community for over 100 years.

Interior of the General Motors car barn located on the north-west corner of Bond Street and Ritson Road

In 1907, R.S. McLaughlin, son of Robert, created the McLaughlin Motor Car Co. after visiting the United States and discovering that automobiles were becoming a modern luxury.  It was after this tour that R.S. McLaughlin decided to use Buick engines and chassis with McLaughlin bodies to create the McLaughlin-Buick automobile.

The company produced 154 of these McLaughlin-Buicks in 1907.  In 1915, the Chevrolet Motor Car Co. of Canada was formed.  It was also the same year that the original McLaughlin Carriage Co. was sold to Jim Tudhope of Orillia, after building and producing 270,000 carriages.  In 1918, McLaughlin and Chevrolet merged with General Motors to create General Motors of Canada.  According to R.S. McLaughlin, “that was a grand thing for Oshawa on the day that the sale was made, and the city of Oshawa and our workmen will never regret it.”

During the First World War, Oshawa’s auto industry had provided many of the military vehicles required by the Allied Nations, and in turn, the wartime effort assisted in the development of expanded facilitates.  Following WWI, new factory plant units were erected to support the production of the newly acquired automobile contracts.   In 1920 Oldsmobile joined Chevrolet and the McLaughlin Buick on the assembly lines.  In 1923 Cadillac was added to Oshawa’s production.  In 1926 there was further expansion in the company as additions to the north plant were made that enabled a further increase in production.  When the Pontiac name was added to the line-up more space was needed on the assembly line.

In 1920 General Motors of Canada patented the adjustable front seat.  The subsequent year, the world’s first stoplights [brake lights] appeared on Oshawa built cars.  Sadly in this same year, Robert – the founder of the company – passed away at age 86.  A few years later, in 1924, George decided to retire from General Motors.

In 1922, the company employed 1700 workers with two shifts, producing 200 cars a day.  In 1928 at peak production, General Motors in Oshawa employed 5000 workers and produced a car a minute.  This figure was a far cry from the 154 cars the McLaughlin Motor Car Company produced in its entire first year.

General Motors aided the town of Oshawa greatly by having several roads widened and resurfaced, by purchasing land and donating Lakeview Park to the citizens of Oshawa, and by sponsoring various sports teams.  Although in 1928 the company experienced record production figures, the following year’s stock market crash and resulting depression had a serious impact on the automobile industry.  General Motors was not immune to this affect.  The business had no choice but to cut back on production and employment until the economy began to improve in 1934. 

Two women working on the line during WWII, 1944.

In 1938 the 1 000 000 000th car rolled off the lines – 31 years after the company’s first car was built.  This same year, the company began to build and test various army trucks and combat vehicles.  Being dedicated to the war effort, R.S. McLaughlin had approved the request brought before him the preceding year by the Department of National Defense to construct military equipment.  Tests had revealed the efficiency and reliability of the vehicles produced by General Motors and this is what prompted the request from the Department of National Defense.  By 1942 production on passenger vehicles came to a halt and full wartime production ensued.  Hundreds of thousands of assorted military vehicles, weapons, gun mounts, machine guns and Mosquito aircraft fuselages were among the military items made.  By 1943 completion of Canada’s 500 000th fighting vehicle was celebrated in Oshawa.  The Mosquito fuselage reached production of one per day.

General Motors plant in downtown Oshawa, 1940s.

By the end of WWII, when military production   was   terminated, the plant had to be re-converted to facilitate the production of civilian vehicles.  This retrofit involved major remodeling and a complete re-tooling of the plant.  Of course General Motors was up to the task and it wasn’t long before the plant began turning out civilian passenger cars once again.

When GM ceased wartime production after the Second World War, the first post-war car came off the lines by October 1945.  In 1950 the plant expanded, and in 1954 passenger car assembly began at a new south plant complex in Oshawa.  The year 1956 marked the three millionth vehicle produced since 1907, and five years later GM had produced four million vehiclesTwo thousand units were being produced daily by 1965.  The Canada-US Trade agreement (Autopact) was signed allowing GM of Canada to increase its production considerably in the years to follow.  During 1968 the plastic moulding facilities were enlarged so that instrument panels, fender liners and grille sections could be manufactured.

General Motors of Canada was no stranger to military production; it had created many weapons and vehicles in the first and second World Wars.  In 1975 GM of Canada began construction on trucks for the Department of National Defense.  It only took one year to modify the assembly line so that the trucks could be produced on the same line as the regular commercial vehicles.

In 1983, the year of GM’s 75th birthday, William Street in front of the GM Head Office was temporarily changed to “GM Way.”   A street sign was posted to reflect the change.  GM Oshawa was given the privilege of building 21 royal blue luxury cars worth half a million dollars for Queen Elizabeth II’s scheduled visit to Ontario in 1984.  About this time, the company was proposing a 4-year plan to revamp the truck plant, and build a metal stamping facility.  The stamping plant would be of great benefit because at the time the bulk of parts (roofs, hoods and floor pans) were imported to Oshawa from the United States.  There could be shipping delays, and keeping a supply on hand took up a large amount of storage space.  When the stamping plant was up and running, parts could be made as required, and sent to the car plant next-door for assembly and painting.  The planned expansion also meant 300 new jobs.  The much-anticipated Autoplex became the “largest, most modern, integrated vehicle-manufacturing complex in North America.” It is spread over three locations; made up of a 2-car assembly plant, the truck assembly plant and a fabrication plant (stampings, batteries, lamps, plastics, etc).  GM plants in Canada had advantages over their U.S. counterparts–the cheaper dollar and the government run medical and social benefits.  

 In 1986 there was a 4-month shutdown at the Oshawa truck plant, and a one-month shutdown at one of the car plants.  The interior of the plant was torn up, expanded, and modernized.  It re-opened with more than 120 robots, hundreds of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV’s), and 526 automated welders.   Instead of the traditional assembly line where employees rushed to assemble parts on a moving conveyor, which could not be slowed down or stopped, the AGV’s, which run along tracks buried in the floor, would carry components to work stations of 8-15 people.  These AGV’s also tow units to booths where computer-controlled robots take over certain painting or welding tasks, jobs considered too repetitive or delicate for humans to perform. At this time, plans were underway to replace the production of the “A-Car” (Chevrolet Celebrity and Pontiac 6000) with the 10-car.  There was a major lay off for nightshift workers at Plant No. 1 from November 1987 to March of 1988. The layoff was due to a large drop in midsize car sales in the United States.   Shift workers would work two weeks of days and then two weeks off, for the duration of those four months.

General Motors Headquarters
David Dowsley Collection

Until 1989 the GM office staff was spread out over nine buildings.  In August of that year GM sought to consolidate its office staff in one massive Head Office.  The former 70-year-old Head Office on William Street was abandoned with plans to convert it to a parking lot.  A five level building was built at the east end of Wentworth Street (now called Col. Sam Drive) with a beautiful view of the lake.

Oshawa became the first auto assembly line in North America to run on 3 shifts when it added the 3rd shift to the truck assembly plant in 1993.  In 1995 the six millionth truck rolled off the lines, since the production of trucks began in 1919.

General Motors was hit hard by the economic downturn between 2008  and 2010.  The truck plant in Oshawa was closed in May 2009 and in June the company declared bankruptcy.  However, after massive restricting and bail-out loans from both the federal and provincial governments, the company began to rebound in 2010 and posted profits for the first time in years. 

November 2018 saw the announcement that the company was closing the Oshawa plant as part of their global restructuring plan. For a community with close ties to the company for over 100 years, this news hit hard. While the company is not completely leaving the community, a portion of the plant will be retrofitted to build car parts and a portion of the plant property will become a new test track for autonomous vehicles, the closure of the plant will mean the end of a large part of Oshawa’s identity.

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