Provincial and federal leaders alike conceded the futility Monday of trying to persuade General Motors to keep its Oshawa, Ont., automotive plant running beyond 2019, and instead focused on finding ways to ease the pain of more than 2,500 workers who stand to lose their jobs.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford insisted Monday there was nothing his government could do to talk GM into abandoning its plan to shutter the factory at the end of next year. Ford and lawmakers in Ottawa vowed to work together to help affected workers, their families and the city — which will lose its biggest employer.
“The first thing I said was, ‘What can we do?’,” Ford said Monday, recalling his phone call Sunday with GM Canada CEO Stephen Carlisle. “He said, ‘The ship has already left the dock.’ “
Ford added: “To say we’re disappointed is an understatement.”
The closure of GM’s Oshawa operation, just east of Toronto, would deliver a major economic blow to the region and will be felt at the Ontario and national levels. In addition to the Oshawa plant, the automaker announced Monday it was planning to close four other plants in the United States and two overseas by the end of 2019 as part of a global restructuring that will see the company cut costs and focus more on autonomous and electric vehicles.
In a Twitter post Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he told GM CEO Mary Barra that he was deeply disappointed about the closure and insisted his government would do everything possible to help affected auto workers and their families.
Federal Industry Minister Navdeep Bains described the closure as “incredibly devastating” for GM employees as well as the community. Bains and his cabinet colleague, Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, said Ottawa was looking at how to help workers affected by the closure.
“We’re very disappointed and very surprised by GM’s announcement that we learned about only yesterday,” Duclos told reporters Monday in French. “It’s an announcement that’s disappointing because, obviously, it touches, (it) affects thousands of families in a cruel manner.”
Bains declined to get into specifics about how Ottawa intended to support workers — but he said all options are under consideration.
Ontario called on the federal government Monday to extend employment-insurance eligibility by five weeks to a maximum of 50 weeks for workers affected by the closing. Ford said the province will immediately bolster employment help and retraining measures.
“I support the people out there and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure they get back on their feet,” Ford said.
Politicians from the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario and the Liberal government in Ottawa — which have frequently clashed in public — made efforts Monday to show that when it comes to the GM matter they have, so far, set aside their differences.
“This is not a political issue, this is not about pointing fingers,” Bains said. “This is about standing up for the automotive sector, this is about standing up for the auto workers.”
Ford said he and his federal counterparts would work hand in hand.
But opposition politicians applied pressure on both governments. In Ottawa, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer demanded that Parliament hold an emergency debate on the matter Monday in the House of Commons.
Scheer said the governing Liberals must immediately explain how they will help workers and protect other manufacturing jobs in Ontario.
Federal NDP MP Brian Masse urged the Liberals to create a national auto strategy to ensure product lines and manufacturing processes meet the changing needs of the industry. He criticized the Trudeau government’s announcement last week that it plans to provide $14 billion worth of tax incentives for corporations over the next half-decade, especially if major firms like GM don’t intend to keep jobs in Canada.
At the provincial level, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused the Ford government of giving up on trying to keep the auto jobs from leaving Oshawa.
“In 14 years of being in this house I’ve never seen a government roll over so quickly and throw in the towel on good jobs in this province,” Horwath said.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser called the closure the “worst economic catastrophe” to hit the province since the recession of 2008.
The union representing the Oshawa auto workers says it will put up what it calls “the fight of our lives” to keep the plant open and save thousands of jobs.
— with files from Paola Loriggio in Toronto
Andy Blatchford and Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press