From cars to college town, Canada’s Motor City grows despite GM woes

By Allison Martell

OSHAWA, Ontario(Reuters) – In Oshawa, winning a spot on the line at General Motors isn’t the singular prize it used to be.

As GM Oshawa workers fight for the plant’s survival and face what could be the first Canadian auto strike since 1996, the rest of the once-company town has moved on.

“Everyone looks at Oshawa as, oh, you only make cars … and that’s not true anymore,” said Oshawa Mayor John Henry, whose two brothers work at the plant.

A new university, cancer center and expansion at a nearby nuclear plant have made Oshawa one of the fastest growing labor markets in Canada and attracted a generation of workers who may never set foot in a plant.

For Israel Nieto, 23, Oshawa is not Canada’s Motor City, but the place that made it possible for him to go to college. Nieto immigrated from Mexico six years ago and, after high school, enrolled at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, which took its first students at its Oshawa campus in 2003.

“I just didn’t have the money to spend on (university) residence,” said Nieto, who studies community development and policy. “There was no way I could afford going to university somewhere else in Canada.”

With contract talks grinding on and a strike deadline set for Sept. 19, the union wants to secure new vehicle production at the Oshawa plant, which employs 2,500 people. Without new investment, the assembly plant would likely shut by 2020.

To be sure, closure would hurt Oshawa’s economy, eliminating thousands of jobs, with knock-on affects across the province. Canada has struggled in recent years to lure new auto investment, losing out to the United States and lower-cost Mexico.

Unlike some other company towns however, Oshawa has diversified, making up for lost manufacturing jobs in other industries.

From 2001 to 2015, manufacturing jobs in the city fell by more than 40 percent. Statistics Canada data shows that manufacturing, which employed 21 percent of the city’s workforce in 2001, accounted for just 8 percent, or about 17,700 people, in 2015.

The city’s technology-oriented university helped shift growth into other sectors. Late Canadian finance minister, Jim Flaherty, who represented the area, pushed the initiative for years as a local politician.

GM has helped fund high-tech research facilities at the university. But most of the 10,000 students are enrolled in unrelated programs, from nursing to criminology. More students study game development than automotive engineering.

By 2015, some 14,300 people worked in education, up from 8,700 in 2001, and 12 percent of the city’s workforce was in healthcare and social assistance, up from 9 percent in 2001.

BMO Capital Markets ranked Oshawa first in the country its latest Regional Labour Market Report Card, after weighing population and employment growth against other cities.

Oshawa’s 6.9 percent unemployment rate was slightly higher than Ontario’s overall rate of 6.7 percent in August – though below the national rate of 7 percent – and has improved by more than a full percentage point over the previous year.

GM’s influence remains significant in Oshawa. Visitors can tour the estate of Robert Samuel McLaughlin, who sold his family’s carriage and car body factory to the U.S. company in 1918 and became a GM vice president, or watch the local hockey team, the Oshawa Generals, at the General Motors Centre.

But other employers are vying for prominence now.

Lakeridge Health, which runs the local hospital, is a major employer, thanks in part to a new regional cancer center that opened in 2007.

Meanwhile, the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, a short drive from the GM assembly, is about to kick off a major refurbishment expected to create about 8,800 construction jobs a year until 2026, and protect 3,000 permanent positions.

When Darryl Koster was growing up in Oshawa in the 1970s, everyone wanted a job at GM and he was no exception. He spent 11 years on an assembly line making vehicle seats for a GM supplier before quitting during the first tech boom. Now, he owns a local restaurant chain, Buster Rhino’s Southern BBQ and, while sad to see GM shrink, is upbeat on the city.

“I’m happy to see us going and filling in those jobs,” he said. “That’s incredible. A lot of cities have never been able to do that.”

(Editing by Amran Abocar and Lisa Girion)

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