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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Emergency crews help an injured pedestrian who was struck by a vehicle this afternoon. / Patrick Penner Photo
Pedestrian struck close to Mission’s Windebank Elementary School

RCMP, firefighters and ambulance are on scene

Clay Helkenberg was all smiles after bringing up a gun and box of ammo from the bottom of Chilliwack Lake. (Instagram photo)
Chilliwack diver finds handgun and ammunition on the bottom of Chilliwack Lake

Clay Helkenberg has long had a gun on his want-to-find list, and finally checked it off

Cannabis plants visible under bright lights inside a large facility at Shxwha:y Village on July 6, 2018. The reserve was home to the licensed producer for Indigenous Bloom, which opened up a dispensary on the Kwaw-Kwaw-Apilt reserve. On April 12, 2021, Shxwha:y announced Health Canada approval for a licensed production facility at the village. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Chilliwack’s Shxwha:y First Nation approved for cannabis cultivation and processing facility

It will be the first majority-owned Indigenous on-reserve licensed facility in Western Canada

A man wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as he walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
COVID-19 spike in B.C. could overwhelm B.C. hospitals: modelling group

There are 397 people are in hospital due to the virus, surpassing a previous high of 374 seen in December

A deep cut on a humpback whale is shown in this recent handout photo in the Vancouver area. A conservation organization is warning boaters to be extra careful to prevent further harm to an injured humpback whale swimming in the Vancouver area. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Ocean Wise, Vanessa Prigollini *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Boaters urged to use caution around hurt humpback off Vancouver

Ocean Wise says watchers first noticed the wound 3 days ago and believe it was caused by a vessel strike

Ron Rauch and his wife Audrey are photographed at their home in Victoria, Friday, March 5, 2021. Their daughter Lisa Rauch died on Christmas Day 2019 when a tactical officer with the Victoria Police Department shot her in the back of the head with plastic bullets after barricading herself in a room that was on fire. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. families push for changes as special committee examines provincial Police Act

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth acknowledged the need to update the legislation last year

Major-General Dany Fortin, left, looks on as Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. The Public Health Agency of Canada has set aside up to $5 billion to pay for COVID-19 vaccines. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada negotiating contracts to secure COVID-19 booster shots for next year: Anand

Most of Canada’s current vaccine suppliers are already testing new versions against variants

Demonstrators at the legislature on April 14 called on the province to decriminalize drug possession and provide widespread access to regulated safe supply across B.C. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)
Rally calls for decriminalization, safe supply on 5th anniversary of overdose emergency declaration

From 2016 to the end of February, 7,072 British Columbians died due to overdose

Two women walk past ‘The Meeting’ sculptures in White Rock’s Miramar Plaza Wednesday afternoon. (Aaron Hinks photo)
New public art in White Rock faces criticism as the ‘two Michaels’ remain in China’s custody

‘I would encourage people to go out and enjoy it’ said Vancouver Biennale founder

(Government of Canada)
Liberal MP caught stark naked during House of Commons video conference

William Amos, in Quebec, appeared on the screens of his fellow members of Parliament completely naked

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Feb. 1, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count jumps to 1,168 Wednesday, nearly 400 in hospital

Now 120 coronavirus patients in intensive care, six more deaths

Most Read