It’s the eleventh day of September. The year is 1971. A parade of soldiers come marching down Simcoe Street in Oshawa. They are part of a hundred-man Guard of Honour from the Ontario Regiment sent to show respect to the Honorary Colonel, Robert Samuel McLaughlin. It is his 100th birthday.
The soldiers form in rows and shoot their rifles into the air, commencing a feu de joie. In the procession are also four Sherman heavy tanks that fire a 15-gun salute.
This story and others compiled for Fidelis et Paratus, a 150-year history of the Ontario Regiment, was prepared by author Rod Henderson to honour the regiment and in this case, R. S. McLaughlin.
McLaughlin received the salute while the parade passed his home, Parkwood Estate. Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor at the time, W. Ross MacDonald, read a birthday greeting to McLaughlin from Queen Elizabeth II as several military commanders in attendance looked on.
People think of Oshawa as an autoworker’s town. The rich heritage of Oshawa is best explored through the historical sites built around the city. The R. S. McLaughlin Armoury on Simcoe is a gateway to understanding the vast complexity of the community’s past.
Oshawa’s industrial reputation is slowly being replaced with a richer cultural background, according to Jeremy Neal Blowers, the executive director of the Ontario Regiment Museum.
“As that industrial footprint has been shrinking, the city has really both on the community level and in the highest levels of political leadership has really put an emphasis on culture, and heritage,” said Blowers, who believes the city of Oshawa is currently going through a renaissance period.
The armoury’s namesake and founder of General Motors Canada, Colonel McLaughlin, was not just a successful capitalist but, along with his family, has deep roots in philanthropic works that entrenched his legacy in Canadian military tradition.
The McLaughlin Armoury boasts a proud history. As a heritage site, it is part of several of Oshawa’s milestone moments as a city, and the Ontario Regiment calls the armoury home.
S. McLaughlin was made Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel of the Ontario Regiment on November 1, 1920. He held that position until 1931 when he was made Honorary Colonel. Many soldiers had begun using the affectionate nickname, “Colonel Sam.”
“It was actually because of his efforts we were able to stay alive during the Great Depression,” said Sara Jago, among her responsibilities she manages reception at the Ontario Regiment Museum.
Jago said the regiment has been able to persist to this day due to McLaughlin.
“Canada was closing down a lot of its regiments during the time, because we couldn’t afford it, and no one saw the second world war coming until the mid-thirties,” said Jago.
McLaughlin was also president of General Motors of Canada, which is how he and his family could afford to support both the regiment and community on such a consistent basis.
“Unlike the ivory tower elitist sort of thing, if you look at the way the McLaughlins lived, they were always in the community and always giving,” said Blowers, sitting in his antique office chair at the Ontario Regiment Museum.
“Their house was open to so many people in the community…The officers of Camp X would often come there on weekends and use his billiard room. Have some drinks and cigars on the house,” said Blowers, who is a younger man than one would expect to be directing a museum.
Author Rob Henderson of Fidelis et Paratus writes Lieutenant-Colonel R. B. Smith said of McLaughlin during the Ontario Regiment’s centennial in 1966 that the Colonel remained supportive of the armoury even during the years of the Great Depression.
Henderson writes Smith had gone to McLaughlin needing a custom uniform for a sergeant.
McLaughlin replied, “Then go ahead and send me the bill.”
By 1967, McLaughlin had become the longest serving colonel in Canadian history.
McLaughlin was also given the highest Canadian honour, the Companion of the Order of Canada award.
“Not many Canadians are recipients of it and how you get that is for exceptional and extraordinary service within your community,” said Jago, as she delivered a tour of McLaughlin’s section at the museum. “It’s one of the highest civilian awards, if not the highest.”
On January 6th 1972, McLaughlin died. He was interred at the R. S. McLaughlin Armoury, where 20, 000 people attended to pay their respects. The armoury was also the site of the military funeral. Nine senior non-commissioned officers, here meaning they obtained their rank through promotion rather than commission, acted as his pallbearers. The military history of Oshawa and the McLaughlin family go hand in hand.
Situated on Simcoe and Richmond Street, the armoury is a mass of brick, layered on stone foundation. The armoury is large, and with its imposing figure looks more like a castle, standing out in the downtown landscape.
The Oshawa Armoury opened in 1914. Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia and Defence from 1911 to 1916, accelerated construction efforts due to the threat of World War I.
At the start of the war, the men who were mobilized for service were camped out in the Williams’ Piano Company that stretched around the block where the police station now stands. There were no beds of any kind prepared, and so soldiers had to sleep on the cold hard floor. The armoury also had no bedding because it was used as the regiment’s headquarters.
Henderson wrote in his histories of the Ontario Regiment that when Robert McLaughlin Sr. heard about the condition of the soldiers, he bought every single comforter and blanket available and donated them to the armoury. He then went door-to-door in Oshawa to ask for further donations.
When Oshawa was first designated as a city in March of 1924, Oshawa Mayor W. J. Trick gave a speech outside the hall of the Oshawa Armoury. Bands marched in the street and there was a 25-gun salute. Later that evening, a dance was held inside to commemorate the event.
In the same year, a war memorial to commemorate those who had fallen in the Great War was unveiled in what is now known as Memorial Park in Oshawa.
To this day, members of the Ontario Regiment, as well as war veterans, congregate at the R. S. McLaughlin Armoury as part of the Remembrance Day tradition.
“We’ve gone many times over the years and you wouldn’t get the turnout that you get now. But since the Afghanistan war, that’s had a major impact on the civilians for the army. They just cheer,” said Warrant Officer David Mountenay who served in the Ontario Regiment and now works at the Ontario Regiment Museum.
Mountenay has fond memories of the Remembrance Day parade route and the lives he touched through his service. He met a little girl on the way to Memorial Park.
“The mother brought her over to me and she said, ‘She wanted to thank a soldier,’ It makes me cry. She gave this to me and she had written, ‘Thank you,’” Mountenay said.
In 1991, the federal government of Canada made the R. S. McLaughlin Armoury a Recognized Federal Heritage Building.
The Ontario Regiment itself has a proud history in Oshawa. “The regiment represents the army, in this town anyway,” said Mountenay. Founded in 1866, the regiment was moved from Whitby to Oshawa when the Oshawa Armoury had finished construction.
The regiment has seen fighting in both world wars as well as deployment in Afghanistan. The regiment was an infantry battalion up until the second World War when it was designated as the 11th Canadian Armoured Regiment.
“We were one of the first in the second World War regiments that went armour,” said Mountenay.
However, according to Mountenay the government in typical fashion hadn’t actually purchased the tanks after designating the regiment as “armoured.”
“R.S McLaughlin was good friends with General Worthington… McLaughlin had the dough,” said Mountenay. Someone had to buy tanks for the newly designated armoured division, but the government wasn’t spending a lot of money at the time. “They went to the U.S. and bought a trainload of these (Renault tanks) for training at Camp Borden.”
The Ontario Regiment retained the use of the signature Sherman type heavy tanks well into the 1970’s and was the last Canadian unit to do so.
“We didn’t do it gently…We were the last reserve regiment to have Sherman tanks, and then they took them all away. Sold them to the scrap heap, a lot of them were cut up. The engines were used for farms and generator sets,” said Mountenay.
The stories of the soldiers from the Ontario Regiment and those from Oshawa are well documented in war diaries. What follows is an account of fighting on the frontlines in France from July 23, 1917:
Pte. W.M. Johnson, No. 1. Lewis Gunner, went with his crew up the gully in the slag heap, and swept the top of the same. He fired all his pans, and got more, and although two of his men were wounded, he kept the enemy at bay on the slag heap, and when his ammunition was running out, and men were being killed and wounded, he withdrew, fighting and covering the posts as he withdrew. He brought in his Lewis Gun, thoroughly exhausted, but full of fight.
It is this spirit of heroism and service, R. S. McLaughlin sought to safeguard both for the soldiers in need of his support and for future generations of Canadians to look back on their history.
Now forty-six years after the death of McLaughlin, it is difficult to go anywhere in Oshawa without recognizing his legacy, and the impact he had on the community.
The McLaughlin Armoury holds it place in Oshawa as an important part of its cultural heritage.
“Even in the past decade, a lot of special events are held at the armoury,” Blowers said. As the director of the regiment’s museum, his responsibilities are to oversee the preservation of Durham’s military history. “The armoury is on the parade route for a certain reason, for reviewing the troops or saluting the flag. Civic events are there as well as military events… It has always been a focal point… It’s right there on Simcoe street, right in the heart of the old center of town.”
The armoury and the history behind it stands testament to the fact that Oshawa is far more than a town where cars are made.