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‘I was a kid in a GM household, I thought it was going to survive’: Oshawa-area MPs in disbelief at GM’s looming closure

By Beatrice Paez       

While today’s plant is a 'small image of its former self,' Conservative MP Erin O'Toole, who once worked at GM and whose father worked there for 30 years, said he expected the plant to survive. Conservative MP Colin Carrie, who also worked summers at GM, represents Oshawa, and Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who represents Whitby, talk about the aftershocks of 2,600 people losing their jobs in the region.

Conservative MP Colin Carrie, who represents Oshawa, Ont., tweeted this photo of himself in a scrum across the street from the GM plant in his riding last Monday. Mr. Carrie himself worked at the plant in the 1980s to help pay university. Photograph courtesy of Twitter
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General Motors’ decision last week to halt operations in Oshawa, Ont., within the next year sent shockwaves throughout the community, with the move deeply felt by two area MPs who once worked for the auto giant.

Like many people in the Oshawa-Durham community in Ontario, Conservative MPs Colin Carrie and Erin O’Toole have a personal connection to the plant. In the 1980s, to help pay for university, Mr. Carrie, who represents the federal riding of Oshawa, worked there for about seven summers, helping out on the assembly line. He recalls working on the Pontiac 6000, one of GM’s best sellers in the early 1980s; production of that model ceased in 1991.

Mr. O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) also had a year-long stint with GM, working at its battery plant as a co-op student in high school. For more than 30 years, his father worked for GM, first at its Sainte-Thérèse facility in Quebec before relocating to Oshawa not long after Mr. O’Toole was born.

“I was a kid in a GM household, growing up alongside a lot of other [GM] kids in Oshawa. … [It] provided for my family for over 30 years, so it was deeply personal. The whole community is feeling the loss,” Mr. O’Toole told The Hill Times last week. “We used to go to the Christmas [events] and the fork-lift races that the CAW [Canadian Auto Workers union] used to run. It really was the pillar of the Oshawa-Durham community.”

GM officially announced on Nov. 26 that it intends to shutter its Oshawa facility by December 2019. Rumours had swirled the night before that cuts affecting about 2,600 employees were coming.

“Imagine you’re sitting around at the dinner table on Sunday night, and you find out about this [through a news leak]. It wasn’t handled properly,” Mr. Carrie said. “This is about real people, this about families whose futures were depending on the automotive sector, so it was really unbelievable it would happen like this.”

Four other plants in North America, including in Ohio and Detroit, are slated to cease operations as part of the company’s push to reorient its strategy by shifting resources to the production of electric and self-driving cars. Some 14,800 workers in the U.S. and Canada are expected to be out of a job.

Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes’s riding of Whitby, Ont., is just a short, seven-minute drive from the plant. The closure is sure to have an impact on a number of companies that supply to GM and are “part of the ecosystem of GM,” she said, noting she’s met with Whitby Mayor Don Mitchell in an effort to get assessment on what the toll will be.

For Mr. O’Toole, GM’s decision raises questions about why the Oshawa plant was among those selected for closure.

Unifor president Jerry Dias, who represents GM workers in Oshawa, Ont., met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Nov. 27, following news that the auto giant intends to close shop by December 2019. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

His memories of GM from growing up are of a time when the company had more than 20,000 salaried employees, just a few decades ago, a number that has since dwindled to about 2,600 as of 2018. While today’s plant is a “small image of its former self,” he said he expected the plant to survive, saying it has long proven itself to be flexible amid changing consumer preferences. “It can build cars; it can build trucks. It had shrunk down to a size where it was pretty much just a plant used for peaking production for popular vehicles, so I thought it was going to survive in its current form. But clearly, GM didn’t think the environment was competitive anymore.”

Roughly 1,400 of those employed in Oshawa will qualify for early retirement, while others could find work at its other facilities in Ingersoll and St. Catharines, both located in Ontario, according to a CBC report.

That GM was one of the beneficiaries of a $9-billion cheque that the federal Conservatives cut in 2009 to bail out the auto industry amid the global recession has left many in the community feeling angry and betrayed.

This is not about partisanship,’ say MPs

The day the news dropped, Mr. O’Toole said he and his caucus co-ordinated a plan to contend with the fallout. Mr. Carrie dropped in at the plant, meeting with workers, first on his own early in the day and later with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) in tow, while Mr. O’Toole requested that the House hold an emergency debate on Nov. 26 to gain more clarity on what the government’s response would entail.

Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes says the plant closure will have an impact on businesses in her community that are part of the ‘GM ecosystem.’ The Hill Times file photograph

Both Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) appeared resigned to GM’s decision, focusing on reassuring workers that the government would come to their aid. Mr. Ford instructed Employment Ontario to redeploy the Rapid Re-employment and Training Service program to help those affected, while federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains (Mississauga-Malton, Ont.) said Ottawa plans to consider “all the different options” to assist in the transition.

Still, Oshawa-area MPs expressed hope that a plan can be hashed out in the coming months to persuade GM to reconsider.

“Every few years, there are questions about what’s going to be allocated to the plant. If you read this announcement, they didn’t say they’re going to be tearing down the plant. It just said there was going to be no allocation for 2019,” Mr. Carrie noted. “I think there’s hope that, if the right conditions occur, then maybe there’s things that can be done.”

Ms. Caesar-Chavannes echoed that sentiment: “They haven’t made allocations to the plants in 2019. I’m hoping there is some sliver of a hope in that announcement. Historically, GM has said that they were going to make adjustments with the Oshawa plant, and it ended up continuing on for years after.”

Unifor president Jerry Dias, who represents more than 310,000 workers across different industries, including GM’s Oshawa workforce, vowed to fight to keep the jobs in Oshawa. He warned that allowing GM to go ahead with its plan would just be the start of longer-term strategy to eventually divest from Canada, in favour of Mexico, where job wages are not on par with U.S. and Canada. (The new NAFTA deal works to remedy wage disparities, but it would not immediately take effect even after it is signed.)

Conservative MP Erin O’Toole raised questions about whether the uncertainty around the feds’ carbon tax plan is leading businesses like GM to leave Canada. The Hill Times file photograph by Andrew Meade

Asked if GM’s withdrawal signals a trend, and whether the government is politically vulnerable because of its promises to help the auto industry transition,  Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said she’s not worried. “Toyota made a $1.4-billion investment. … The conditions for the growth and investments are here,” she said. “GM made a business decision.”

Despite questions about whether the Trudeau government’s innovation strategy, coupled with its environmental policy, is creating the right conditions to attract and retain foreign business, partisan attacks were initially muted.

Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said she spoke with Mr. Carrie and both agreed this is “not about partisanship” and that the focus should be on helping families affected. In a separate interview with The Hill Times, Mr. Carrie also asserted this issue is “not about politics.”

The Conservatives have since cast blame on Ottawa’s carbon tax plan, arguing that it is undermining Canada’s competitiveness. “We have a regulatory framework that is changing, and we also have the uncertainty of a new carbon tax that the federal government is forcing upon [us],” Mr. O’Toole said.

Tim Powers, vice-chairman at Summa Strategies, said in the wake of the announcement, the dominant narrative has been that GM is largely to blame.

“There seems to be a general acceptance in the public narrative that this is the car company’s doing, that it’s moving because of better opportunities elsewhere. This raises the question of, what could Canada do? But I don’t think Trudeau is wearing it. There isn’t enough of a supporting cast to say he should be wearing it,” he said, pointing to the fact that Mr. Dias and U.S. President Donald Trump have concentrated their ire on the auto giant.

John Delacourt, vice-president at Ensight Canada and former Liberal Hill staffer, said he can’t see the issue taking on a “partisan colour,” but noted that the premier’s decision to cancel the Ontario subsidy for electric vehicles could be taken as a “disincentive” in GM’s calculation of whether to stick around

“I don’t necessarily think one political party is going to be called to account by the electorate next year on the travails of GM in Oshawa,” he said.

bpaez@hilltimes.com
The Hill Times 

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