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John Lacroix was laid off from the Sterling Truck plant in St. Thomas, Ont. and now works part-time at Lear Corp., which will close its plant soon. Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
John Lacroix was laid off from the Sterling Truck plant in St. Thomas, Ont. and now works part-time at Lear Corp., which will close its plant soon. Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)


How the economic storm battered St. Thomas, Ont.'s factories Add to ...

In the depths of the recession, John LaCroix stopped at a traffic light in his green Ford Windstar and found himself struck by a wave of anxiety.

He had been working only part-time since being laid off at the Sterling Truck plant in St. Thomas in 2007 and fears about running out of money had been waking him in the middle of the night. Now, they were beginning to dominate his daytime thoughts as well.

“You’re stopped at a red light. There’s nobody around; you’re looking at your gas gauge and thinking of your money. ‘I’m wasting gas that I need. This is serious. This is food for my table. I’m not sitting here when there’s no other cars around. I’m going through this red light.’” And he did.

Mr. LaCroix’s journey through the recession reflects the devastation the manufacturing crisis has wrought on St. Thomas, the one-time railway capital of Canada that now has a strong claim to another, more dubious title: the Canadian city hit hardest by the recession and factory closings.

The shutdown of the Sterling heavy-truck plant, the looming closing of a nearby Ford Motor Co. factory and numerous other shutdowns have rippled well beyond Mr. LaCroix and thousands of others whose jobs have vanished, hitting social service agencies, the United Way, local school boards and taxpayers in the city and the surrounding area.

Few cities across Canada have endured the blow of having their two largest employers leave town in the space of a little more than two years. The Ford closing, scheduled for September, comes as St. Thomas is still trying to pick itself up after the recession, which wiped out about 250,000 manufacturing jobs across the country in 2008-2009.

The recovery from that crisis has been uneven across the manufacturing sector. While many companies and communities are bouncing back and new entities are rising from the ashes of closed businesses, the situation is taking longer to play out in places like St. Thomas. The city’s woes also underscore the dangers of becoming too reliant on one niche within the manufacturing sector. Its location in the heart of the auto making belt of southwestern Ontario has made it heavily dependent on that industry, which is recovering only slowly from the crisis that sent Chrysler LLC and General Motors Corp. into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection two years ago.

The Sterling closing was one of a number of permanent shutdowns of large Canadian operations by offshore-based manufacturers. It wiped out more than 1,400 jobs in 2009, two years after Mr. LaCroix was laid off in 2007.

Ford will cut about 1,000 direct jobs when it shuts its St. Thomas Assembly Plant in nearby Talbotville, Ont., in September. With that, one of Mr. LaCroix’s part-time jobs will disappear – at Lear Corp., in St. Thomas itself, where the seats for the Ford vehicles are made.

The job at Lear was one of two jobs that helped Mr. LaCroix make ends meet while he studied for a diploma in community services work. They helped, but barely, because he was called in to Lear or GKN Sinter Metals, a manufacturer of powdered metal parts in St. Thomas, only if enough full-time employees were absent.

“I didn’t know if I [was going to]get a paycheque next week or not,” he says. “Or how much it’s going to be.”

He has led a nomad-like existence in both his working and personal life since Sterling let him go in 2007. Under the stress, his marriage ended.

He has had infrequent work at the adjustment centre set up by the Canadian Auto Workers union and Sterling to help workers find new jobs, retraining opportunities or educational assistance when their jobs in the plant were eliminated.

“I went 30 years without missing a bill – ever,” the 52-year-old says. But in December, 2008, he handed over to the bank the keys to the house he owned in Port Stanley, Ont., a beach community a 15-minute drive south of St. Thomas. Since then, he has spent periods of time staying with friends or acquaintances who needed some rental income to help pay their own mortgages.

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