Tony Leah, GM worker and member of Green Jobs Oshawa Coalition speaks to activists and media outside the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ont., on the final of production on December 18, 2019. The last vehicles of an era rolled out of GM Canada’s Oshawa assembly plant last week, but workers and the union behind them hope it’s not the end of the line. “We shouldn’t let go of the manufacturing capacity we have there,” said Tony Leah, who worked at the plant for 39 years before having to retire in early December. He’s part of a campaign advocating for government to take over the plant and produce electric vehicles. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Tony Leah, GM worker and member of Green Jobs Oshawa Coalition speaks to activists and media outside the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ont., on the final of production on December 18, 2019. The last vehicles of an era rolled out of GM Canada’s Oshawa assembly plant last week, but workers and the union behind them hope it’s not the end of the line. “We shouldn’t let go of the manufacturing capacity we have there,” said Tony Leah, who worked at the plant for 39 years before having to retire in early December. He’s part of a campaign advocating for government to take over the plant and produce electric vehicles. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

The unclear path forward for Canada’s auto sector as the electric age approaches

Estimates say automakers globally will be spending US$255 billion to roll out 207 electric models by 2022

The last vehicles of an era rolled out of GM Canada’s Oshawa assembly plant last week, but workers and the union behind them hope it’s not the end of the line.

“We shouldn’t let go of the manufacturing capacity we have there,” said Tony Leah, who worked at the plant for 39 years before having to retire in early December. He’s part of a campaign advocating for government to take over the plant and produce electric vehicles.

The end of production at the plant, which assembled vehicles such as the GMC Silverado and Chevy Impala in the final years of its 66-year run, comes at a time of change and uncertainty in the auto industry as it grapples with slowing sales, trade disputes and the steep costs of transitioning production to electric and autonomous vehicles.

Analysts say that in this environment, there’s no clear path ahead for the Oshawa facility or Canada’s auto sector more generally, and it will have to be prepared to fight for the next generation of product commitments needed to sustain itself.

“It’s a very difficult task that Canada has,” said Joe McCabe, president of AutoForecast Solutions.

“But if they focus on the next evolution of the industry, which is this electrification and autonomy, I think that’s a stronger, long-term sustainable play for the Canadian space.”

McCabe sees conventional auto production in Canada as stable at best going forward, if not declining. The sector has already seen cutbacks in the past year at Ford’s Oakville, Ont., plant, Fiat Chrysler’s Windsor, Ont., plant, and of course GM’s Oshawa assembly plant.

He said the best bet for a major investment could be a new entrant, maybe from China, looking to get a North American foothold, but that it will take hard work and big money to lure a new plant to the province.

“The manufacturers have to be incentivized somehow to want to put that flag there.”

ALSO READ: No crude, but still rude: BC Hydro survey reveals conflict at electric vehicle charging stations

China-based Johnson Electric committed in late 2017 to invest more than $350 million in new equipment and capacity in the province focused largely on electric vehicle components, while the Ontario government agreed to chip in $24.1 million. BYD Co. Ltd. also committed to building electric buses in Ontario at the time, though financial details weren’t disclosed.

U.S. investments, meanwhile, will be hard to come by in the near term, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labour and economics at the Center for Automotive Research.

“Right now, investments of any type, in the political environment we’re in, any investment outside the U.S. draws scrutiny.”

But while Canada’s auto industry hasn’t seen the major investments made in the U.S., like GM’s announcement of a US$2.3-billion battery plant in Ohio and billions of dollars to build an all-new electric pickup truck in Detroit, it should still see increases in electric production, said Dziczek.

Most companies will be ramping up from very low levels, while Toyota is expected to have the most production with a 77 per cent increase to 107,000 units by 2023.

The company says hybrid models of its RAV4 and Lexus RX already account for more than 20 per cent of its Canadian production, and that it will also start producing the Lexus NX hybrid in 2022.

“We’ve made significant investments in our facilities to enable them to produce electrified vehicles,” said Stephanie Pollard, vice president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada, in a statement.

Green Jobs Oshawa, the group Leah is a part of, would like to see the Oshawa plant also get into the electric race, with an aim to produce about 150,000 electric vehicles over five years focusing on postal trucks and other federal vehicles.

While great in theory, the chances of it happening are slim to none, said Unifor president Jerry Dias.

“That would be wonderful, but it’s not going to happen.”

Instead, Dias is focused on making sure GM maintains the integrity of the plant and invests in the test track it has promised, so the plant is ready for potential future production that could be lured there by the advanced infrastructure in the area.

“If GM is going to have a test track to use to test out their autonomous and electric vehicles, that will be designed and engineered in Markham, the natural next step is, why wouldn’t you build a car?”

GM has committed $170 million to transform the plant into an auto parts manufacturing operation and build the track, but it hasn’t made any commitments to future vehicle production. It has focused lately more on its technology research and development in the region.

“In times of change, it’s best to focus on the future,” said Scott Bell, president and managing director of GM Canada in a letter on the plant’s closure.

Electric vehicle commitments are just one of the many issues Dias will take into contract negotiations next year with the Detroit three automakers. Electric vehicles remain a sliver of the market, and could still be only about five per cent of sales in 2025, according to Unifor’s estimates.

But it will certainly be an increasingly pressing issue going forward. Management consultant AlixPartners estimates automakers globally will be spending US$255 billion in research, design and capital expenditures and roll out some 207 electric models by 2022.

“It’s inevitable, it’s happening, and so you want to be on the forefront of that, you don’t want to be lagging behind,” said Dias.

He said government will need to work with industry to lure new commitments for the next generation of automobile assembly to keep a bedrock of Ontario’s economy healthy.

“All of the auto companies are talking about the inevitable transformation, and I agree with them, there will be an inevitable transformation. The question becomes, what’s Canada’s role in the transformation.”

Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

The new emergency department at Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Conference Centre is slated to open June 8. (Screenshot from Province of BC video)
Expanded emergency department slated to open in June at Abbotsford Regional Hospital

Project cost $15 million with an additional $1.25 million donated for equipment

Abbotsford Christian Middle & Secondary School closed until May 25 after 10-day exposure. (File photo)
Entire population of Abbotsford Christian Middle & Secondary recommended for testing after COVID cluster

Several staff and students affected after continuous 10-day exposure; campuses closed until May 25

People take part in the Father’s Day Walk Run for Prostate Cancer Foundation BC in Chilliwack on June 21, 2015. This year’s event will still go ahead, but will not be an organized due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Progress file)
Awareness, funds for prostate cancer still needed in pandemic, says Chilliwack man

People to walk/run their own route for Father’s Day fundraiser event for prostate cancer

Jonathan Prest had to climb way up to the top of a dead red cedar tree to rescue a terrified cat, but he made it up and down successfully. (Facebook photos)
Rosedale tree cutter rescues cat stuck 100 feet up a dead and dried-out cedar

Jonathan Prest put himself in extreme peril to get a terrified cat out of a dangerous situation

RCMP Supt. Bryon Massie, officer in charge UFVRD, and Sgt. Mike Sargent of Agassiz Community Policing holding awards from the recent ‘Recognizing Excellence’ ceremony. (RCMP)
Salute to local officers during National Police Week in the Fraser Valley

Exceptional performances and selfless acts noted during the ‘Recognizing Excellence’ awards

Prince Rupert was one of the first B.C. communities targeted for mass vaccination after a steep rise in infections. Grey area marks community-wide vaccine distribution. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. tracks big drop in COVID-19 infections after vaccination

Prince Rupert, Indigenous communities show improvement

RCMP officers stand near a body covered with a tarp in the parking lot of a shopping complex after one person was killed and two others were injured during a shooting in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Man, 23, killed in latest Lower Mainland incident had gang ties: IHIT

Jaskeert Kalkat was one of the three people hit by gunfire at Market Crossing mall at around 8:30 p.m.

A COVID-19 patient receives oxygen outside a hospital in Jammu, India, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP/Channi Anand)
B.C. donates $500K to Red Cross COVID-19 relief efforts in India

The money will provide oxygen cylinders and ambulances for patients in communities grappling with the virus

Superintendent Aaron Paradis, community services officer with the Surrey RCMP, during a media availability about a recent drug bust in Port Coquitlam. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Police seize 13 million ‘potentially fatal doses’ of pure fentanyl at B.C. drug lab

The evidence was seized at large, illicit drug manufacturing site in Port Coquitlam

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Police are asking the public for help identifying a suspect who allegedly hurled anti-Asian slurs at a family in a Richmond drive-through on May 1. (Benjamin Wong/Screen grab)
Suspect at large in racist tirade at Richmond drive-thru, says RCMP

The Caucasian man was recorded May 1 yelling anti-Asian slurs at a Richmond family in the lineup

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth debates the province’s latest measure to control crime, March 10, 2021. The legislation allows police to impound vehicles used to transport weapons and further restricts sale of vehicle and body armour. (B.C. legislature video)
B.C. seeking ways to ‘name and shame’ gangsters, minister says

Mike Farnworth appeals to family members to talk to police

The Greater Victoria School District continues to face backlash over its wording and approach to Indigenous learners in its 2021-2022 budget talks. (Black Press Media file photo)
School district’s approach to Indigenous learners leaves Victoria teachers ‘disgusted’

Backlash grows over ‘pattern of colonial thinking permeating the leadership’

Italian-Canadian prisoners at the Kananaskis prisoner of war camp in Alberta. (University of Calgary/Contributed)
Italian moved to Okanagan with hope; he ended up being sent to a WWII internment camp

Raymond Lenzi shares his grandfather’s story ahead of Canada’s planned formal apology to Italian-Canadians

Most Read