Last Sunday evening, Gus Brown was in his car in the parking lot outside Johnny’s Original Eatery in Oshawa, Ont., when he heard the news. The city just east of Toronto was about to see its 100-year history of building General Motors Co. cars and trucks come to an end.
“I got a phone call,” he says, “and then I could see it was on the [TV] screens inside.” Mr. Brown is 85 years old and still running the nearby Buick-GMC dealership that bears his name, and which he started 50 years ago. He had planned to meet up with friends at the diner and watch the Grey Cup. Instead, he drove home.
“I couldn’t go in,” he says, his voice wavering. “They would have wanted answers and I didn’t have any. I didn’t sleep well Sunday night.”
On Monday morning, the answers came. GM announced a restructuring that will close five North American plants as it retools for what it says will be the next era of the automobile, powered by electricity instead of gasoline and driven by computers instead of humans. In Oshawa, more than 2,500 people will lose their jobs, the final chapter in a decades-long decline of a manufacturing juggernaut that once employed nearly 10 times that number.
For the city and the region, the plant’s closing is a difficult blow. Oshawa can survive economically – it’s nowhere near as dependent on GM jobs as it used to be. Even so, the news has been met with a mix of anger, worry, disbelief and a nostalgic appreciation for what the company, known here simply as “The Motors,” has meant to the city.
For me, it also feels personal. When I grew up here, GM was everywhere.
Parkwood, a lavish estate with lush gardens that is, perhaps, better known as the mansion from Billy Madison and X-Men, was built by General Motors of Canada Ltd. founder Colonel Robert Samuel McLaughlin in 1917. It sits next to the hospital where I was born and across the street from the high school from which my brother and I graduated, decades after our parents met in its halls.
The McLaughlin name is on the public library where my mom took us to classes as toddlers. It’s also on the art gallery we would visit on school trips. GM Canada’s headquarters looks out over McLaughlin Bay and sits on Colonel Sam Drive.
My dad would take us to watch Eric Lindros and Jason Arnott play for the Oshawa Generals, a junior hockey team named after the company. Oshawa’s motto in those days? “The City that Motovates Canada.”
But my connection to GM runs deeper than landmarks, slogans and Memorial Cup champions.
Three generations of my family worked long careers at various plants: my great-grandfather, my father, two uncles. I spent three summers working on the line. The wages my dad earned, with only a high-school education, are a big reason I grew up where I did, went to the schools I attended, and made many of the friends I still have. The plant allowed me to be the first in my family to go to university. My summer job there is the main reason I came out of school with no student debt.
In what was once the Motor City of Canada, this is not a unique story.
“If you grew up in Oshawa, there’s a very good chance that your hockey coach, soccer coach, baseball coach or Scout leader worked at General Motors,” says John Henry, who finishes his second term as Oshawa’s mayor this week. Mr. Henry’s father and two brothers worked at GM. He once worked at the plant himself as a contractor. He worries about what the plant closing will do to the community and charitable donations to causes such as the United Way.
More than jobs will be lost, he says. “It’s history that we’re losing."
THE LONG DECLINE
Signs of Oshawa’s diminishing status as an automotive powerhouse have been running through the city’s core for the better part of three decades. Shifts have been cancelled. Layoffs have come by the thousands. The operation produced more than 700,000 vehicles a year and employed 23,000 people by the end of the 1980s. Today, it churns out fewer than 300,000 cars and trucks and employs just over 2,500 people.
The truck assembly plant, which saw its first vehicle roll off the line in 1964, shut its doors for good in 2009.
Ontario’s economy has been slowly moving away from manufacturing and toward services. In the north end of Oshawa, a Costco sits on the site of a GM plant that was demolished in 2005. A parking lot across the street, where vehicles were stored before being shipped, is a Tim Hortons and a Canada Post facility. The General Motors Centre, home to the Generals, is now called the Tribute Communities Centre after the home builder bought the naming rights in 2016.
And, somewhere along the line, the city dropped “motovates” from its motto in favour of “Prepare to be Amazed.”
Still, the news this week hit hard.
John Milosh sits in a booth at Johnny’s, the diner he has owned and run at this location for the past 20 years. At almost 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, two days after GM’s announcement, the breakfast crowd is pouring in. A group of retirees sitting in the corner beneath a Memory Lane sign is the “coffee club,” Mr. Milosh points out. They’re here every day at this time, he says.
“It’s more of the same, yet it’s entirely different,” says Paul MacDonald, a member of the club. The 68-year-old spent nearly three decades working at GM Canada’s head office as an auditor before retiring in April, 2005. His grandfather and father worked for GM in Oshawa, he says.
During his career, he saw all the company’s operations across the country. He has seen firsthand the closings of offices and plants before, including the teardown of the Ste-Thérèse facility outside Montreal in 2002.
“The reason this is so different is because it’s at the heart,” Mr. MacDonald says. “On the macro level, I don’t think this is as significant to the city as it once would have been. Years ago, [if GM left] the city would have shut down. Today, it’s more the psyche of it.”
He’s likely right about that. In the late 1980s, as one of the largest plants in the world produced hundreds of thousands of vehicles a year, the events of this week wouldn’t have seemed possible.
Back then, large celebrations were the norm. Every year on a summer Saturday, the company would play host to the families of its more than 20,000 employees at the GM Picnic – an event that took over Oshawa’s Lakeview Park. Kids rode a merry-go-round and a tilt-a-whirl. There were races, games and prizes. Tickets were exchanged for chips, pop and other treats, all courtesy of The Motors.
My mom recalls that my dad was almost never with us at the picnic. He’d usually be working overtime. There was a lot of overtime in those days, a reality that consistently helped push Oshawa near the country’s top cities for median household income.
LOYALTY TO THE BRAND
High incomes, along with incentives such as employee pricing, meant that auto dealers in the region could count on factory workers’ loyalty to GM. It was rare to see hood ornaments with non-GM logos anywhere in town.
But now Mr. Brown, the owner of the GMC-Buick dealership, has a problem: People in the community are mad at GM and threatening to stop buying the company’s vehicles.
“I’ve never heard feedback like this before,” Mr. Brown says in his dealership on the Whitby-Oshawa border. “People are saying … ‘Why would I buy a [GM] car made in Mexico when GM is doing this here?’”
Mr. Brown chuckles when I tell him about my grandfather’s early disapproval of my uncle’s ownership of a Ford pickup. My grandfather didn’t want him parking “that thing” in his driveway. “That sounds about right,” Mr. Brown says.
It will be months before he knows the full impact of GM’s move on his sales, Mr. Brown says. Until then, he’s planning to focus more of his marketing spending on his dealership’s longstanding involvement in the community, including its donations to support Oshawa’s new cancer centre.
The cancer centre, along with a growing university, the city’s proximity to Toronto, a strong housing market and the 407 toll highway’s extension through the north end, are commonly cited reasons for optimism about Oshawa’s economic outlook. In recent years, retail, education and health care have all overtaken manufacturing as drivers of growth in the city.
Still, Oshawa’s future is in flux. The symbolism is clear: The days when one factory had the power to blur the line between blue and white collars are over.
While he’s not ready to give up hope that GM might change its mind about Oshawa, the mayor believes the city and its workers will persevere.
“At least the plant didn’t close on Monday,” says Mr. Henry, who starts a new job as Durham regional chair on Saturday. “When you look at what auto workers have done in this town, they’ve always adapted. They’ve always evolved.”