Adam Radwanski, The Globe and Mail
September 26, 2020
Suddenly, Canada has a foothold in one of the world’s fastest-growing and most pivotal clean-technology sectors.
Only days ago, being a player any time soon in making electric vehicles seemed preposterous. Ontario’s manufacturing heartland, despite its proud automaking history, had been passed over for new investments in the cars expected to take over global fleets. There wasn’t much confidence among industry-watchers that the junior partner in a continental market, next to an increasingly protectionist United States, could easily change that.
Then came this week’s announcement that Ford Motor Co. will make a roughly $2-billion investment in converting its Ontario facilities to make EVs, mostly by retooling its Oakville, Ont., plant for five new lines of them.
Now, recent claims by Justin Trudeau’s government that Canada could build competitive advantage in making the vehicles of the future sounds a bit more plausible. Maybe this country really could pair its automaking expertise with its reserves of minerals needed for EVs, as Wednesday’s Speech from the Throne suggested, for a uniquely attractive supply chain.
But if it is to make that a reality, Ottawa still needs to work alongside provincial governments, industry and organized labour to come up with a strategy. And while this week’s good news pointed toward some of that strategy’s components, it shouldn’t obscure the need to further step up their game, and the contentious decisions ahead.
In an interview after he triumphantly announced the fruits of labour negotiations with Ford that he led, Unifor president Jerry Dias suggested this was “the first time” that the federal and Ontario governments had really worked together to try to entice EV investment. And he said that the rapid returns were as much a product of circumstance as policy design.
Because the talks were about what Ford will make after 2024, when its commitment to assembling vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE) in Oakville ends, there will be five years for Canada to adapt its infrastructure accordingly. Mr. Dias said that was different from the 2018 situation in which General Motors gave up on its Oshawa plant, rather than committing to building EVs, when ICE lines there were imminently ending. It also helped, he said, that the main competition for building these new Ford EV lines was from Mexico rather than the U.S., and that as the top seller of vehicles in Canada, Ford was reluctant to abandon production here.
Mr. Dias and others do point to ways that governments helped make this happen, and that could lead to future wins as well.
One of them, highlighted by Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association president Flavio Volpe, is the renegotiated version of the North American free-trade agreement. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement includes domestic parts requirements and labour provisions that, per Mr. Volpe, “have biased the U.S. Midwest and Great Lakes over everywhere else,” including Mexico and the U.S. South.