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Robert Samuel McLaughlin was a carriage maker. Carriage-making was a pretty good business in his day. His father built the family company, starting off making ax handles and graduating to wagons and sleighs. In time, the McLaughlin Carriage Works of Oshawa, Ont., became the biggest manufacturer of carriages in the British Empire

But Mr. McLaughlin saw something new coming down the road: the horseless carriage. He and his brother George persuaded their skeptical father that they should start making automobiles. Partnering with the Buick company south of the border, they manufactured first Buicks, then Chevrolets. In 1918, the firm became General Motors of Canada. Mr. McLaughlin was its leader, known around town as Mr. Sam or Colonel Sam.

So began a century of GM auto production in Oshawa, “Canada’s Motor City.” It was the city’s lifeblood and claim to fame. Oshawa built cars and cars built Oshawa.

Now, the era of the car is drawing to a close. Like Mr. McLaughlin, GM is looking over the horizon. It is shuttering five North American factories, including Oshawa’s, and investing in electric and self-driving cars. In other words, it is doing what every smart company does: adapting to a changing world. Is that really so wrong?

Given the national uproar that followed GM’s announcement, you might think that an economic calamity was unfolding. Parliament held an emergency debate. Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer rushed to the Oshawa plant to call on GM to keep it open. Ontario Premier Doug Ford called the news “devastating.” A grim-faced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised help for the 2,500 workers who face losing their jobs.

It was all a bit much. The Canadian economy added 63,000 jobs in September alone. The unemployment rate is the lowest in four decades. Even in Oshawa, the picture is not as dire as broadcast. The economy of this community of 166,000 is ticking along quite nicely. The city government reports that the number of jobs is up 10 per cent in five years, the number of companies up 40 per cent.

The decline of the auto industry in Oshawa has been under way since at least the turn of the century – GM employs a 10th the number of workers that it did at its peak – so the city has been diversifying. Health care, retail and education each employ more workers than manufacturing. Just 10 years ago, manufacturing was No. 1 by far. Now the regional health organization, Lakeridge, has almost as many workers as GM. So does Durham College. Up near the 407 toll highway, students with backpacks walk among a cluster of new teaching and research centres.

As booming Toronto spreads relentlessly, Oshawa, an hour’s drive to the east along the 401 highway, has become a bedroom community as well as an economic sidecar of the Greater Toronto Area. “We are not this isolated industry town in the middle of nowhere,” says local historian Amanda Robinson, who teaches at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. “We are integrated into the GTA economy.”

Of course, the looming closure of the GM plant comes as a blow all the same. Ms. Robinson says the community is bound to feel a sense of loss. Its whole identity is tied up with the auto trade, its trademark for 100 years. It is a rare person here who doesn’t know someone who has collected a GM paycheque – a neighbour, a father, a sister, an uncle, a grandfather.

But, then, Oshawa has adapted to change before. It started life as a little outpost on Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Oshawa Creek. Tanneries sprang up, then foundries. Pioneering industrialists made farm implements, pianos and, yes, carriages. Oshawa was called the Manchester of Canada.

The changes heralded by the planned closing of the GM plant are just the latest in a constant, continuing process of change. They are part of the process of creative destruction that keeps economies growing. Even if governments could pay GM enough to keep its plant open, it would be a mistake.

R.S. McLaughlin lived to 100. Like a proper auto baron, he built a grand estate for his family after his bet on the future paid off. It’s called Parkwood. On the grey day after GM’s announcement, a tour guide showed off its glories – a pool, a squash court, a bowling alley, even an early central vacuum system. Carved on the wood above a grand fireplace in the billiards room is a famous line from the Persian poet Omar Khayyam: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on…”

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