When manufacturing operations at the largest employer in Oshawa, Ont. came to an unexpected halt more than a century ago, it could have been calamitous for the town’s economy.
Rather than waiting for what some saw as an inevitable disaster, some of Oshawa’s leaders got together and brainstormed a plan to get things back up and running.
That scenario is no doubt what many Oshawa residents are hoping for in the wake of General Motors’ announcement that it has no plans to manufacture vehicles in the city past 2019. It’s also one Oshawa has been through before.
In 1899, Oshawa’s main economic driver was the McLaughlin carriage works. It employed more than 600 people in a town of about 4,500.
When the carriage works burned to the ground, some feared that Oshawa’s fortunes would go down with it. Civic leaders, worried that the doomsayers might be right, came up with a novel solution. They loaned the McLaughlins $50,000 to rebuild.
The manufacturer eventually moved from carriages into automobiles. Following a series of mergers and acquisitions, the former McLaughlin carriage works became General Motors Canada.
Fast-forward to 2018, and similar gloom-and-doom predictionsare springing up following GM’s announcement. Ask today’s leaders and experts, though, and they’ll say there’s one big difference between the Oshawa of 1899 and the Oshawa of 2018: It isn’t such a one-horse town.
“It’s going to have a large impact, but it’s not going to have the same impact that it would have had 25 years ago,” Bernard Wolf, a professor emeritus of economics and international business at York University’s Schulich School of Business, told CTV News Channel Monday.
The difference, Wolf and others say, is that Oshawa’s economy has diversified significantly in recent decades. While 2,800 jobs in a city of 160,000 is not insubstantial, GM employed 23,000 people in the city as recently as the 1980s.
Any list of major employers in Oshawa now has to include the health care and education sectors, as well as the provincial government. Another 1,000 people work at a call centre. And then there are the thousands more who live in Oshawa but commute to jobs elsewhere in the Greater Toronto Area, as well as those who do the reverse.
“This is not just an Oshawa issue. The people in the plant live all over,” outgoing Oshawa Mayor John Henry told CTV News Channel.
The same goes for the auto parts manufacturers who supply the Oshawa assembly plant. Many of them aren’t based in the city, but will still feel a significant jolt from the loss of business.
It’s Oshawa that will be hit hardest, though. As confirmation of the shutdown came in on Monday, Oshawa residents expressed concern about everything from declining property values to the fate of restaurants and bars catering to auto workers.
“We’ve always kind of been identified as a factory city,” Cecily Minniti told CTV Toronto.
“It’s going to feel like a big emptiness there.”
Henry and auto workers have expressed hope that a compromise can be found to keep the plant open, although provincial and federal leaders have said they have no reason to think GM would be open to any ideas in that vein.
Wolf also said getting the auto giant to backtrack on a plan that was clearly long in the making would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
“It’s the bottom line, ultimately, that counts. If GM has figured in terms of its world configuration that it doesn’t have a product for that plant, I don’t think there’s terribly much they can do,” he said.
GM’s operations in Oshawa extend far beyond the assembly plant. Its Canadian headquarters are located in the city, including a large engineering hub, and it has partnerships with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
The map below breaks down—by Census divisions—employment numbers in the automotive industry in Ontario, for the years 2006, 2011 and 2016. In the pop-ups for each division, hit the arrow key to shuttle through job numbers for each year. Can't see the map? Click here.