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Thirty-seven years, a river of rivets and four million cars later, Quebec's only automobile assembly line will shudder to a halt for good next week, bringing to a close an eventful, at times troubled, era in the province's modern history.

Once the last Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird muscle cars roll off the line, the sprawling General Motors Corp. complex in this suburban community north of Montreal will be stripped of its contents and left vacant by the side of busy Highway 15.

What had been a potent status symbol and point of pride for many Quebeckers - the only Canadian light vehicle assembly plant outside Ontario - will be reduced to a cavernous shell.

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Local business boosters, government and union officials had steadfastly clung to the hope that GM would come through with a new vehicle model or another use for the facility, or at least find someone willing to buy it before its January, 2004, appointment with the wreckers' ball.

But those hopes have pretty well been dashed and there is a lingering sense of bitterness and sadness that Quebec's promising launch into the big leagues of the North American auto industry is ending with a whimper.

Fingers of blame are pointing in every direction amid post-mortems aimed at explaining what went wrong. Meanwhile, there are efforts to salvage something from the loss of the world's largest auto maker and about 1,400 high-paying jobs, down from a peak of more than 3,000. A special committee comprising government and business notables is promoting the site and the region - grown rich over the past decades in automotive supply and technology companies - as a future North American centre for research and development for electric cars and lightweight magnesium and aluminum parts.

For its part, GM insists it had no choice but to close the plant, given anemic sales of the gas-guzzling muscle cars - known as the poor man's Corvette - which fell victim to rising fuel costs, soaring insurance rates and changing consumer tastes. Peak production of the cars was in 1994, with 192,000 vehicles being rolled out, and the low point was 75,000 in 2001.

Assigning production of a new model for the facility is out of the question, given the massive overcapacity in the North American auto industry, the company says.

Oshawa, Ont.-based GM subsidiary General Motors of Canada Ltd. has promised to replace the lost jobs with an equivalent number of jobs at various GM parts suppliers in the province.

In a touch of irony, a spanking new Home Depot - the U.S.-based home improvement retailing chain - has just opened on a parcel of land, bought from GM, right next door to the auto complex. The land had originally been slated by GM for future expansion.

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Jacques Lalonde sits in his new Chrysler Caravan minivan in the parking lot outside the plant, known as GM Ste-Thérèse. The day's only shift is over - there were three in peak years - and Mr. Lalonde is waiting for a tow truck to come fetch his disabled vehicle.

"We spent some good years here. We never had to complain about our salary," he says, mulling over his 28-year stint toiling in just about every section of the plant. "This was the company that paid the best in Quebec. You went in, you stayed for life. Now the balloon's burst."

At 47, he'll be eligible for a full pension and a special $50,000 retirement allowance in 17 months, part of an end-of-the-line package negotiated between the Canadian Auto Workers and GM Canada.

He's happy he got out in fairly good health because, he says, the work "wears you down." He and his co-workers would often joke about feeling like prisoners anxiously awaiting parole, despite the terrific pay and benefits.

"We didn't think [the closing]would happen quite this fast," the divorced father of one laughs ruefully.

The first 20 years were good ones, but the switch to the rear-wheel muscle cars in 1993 coincided with staff reductions and an assembly line speedup that increased the stress on workers and led to problems such as depression.

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He's angry at management, which he says regularly invoked ever-higher productivity gains as the price to be paid if the plant was to stay open, and in the end it was shut anyway. "You have to continue being the best," he says they were told, even after the facility was rated one of the most efficient in North America.

The threat of being cancelled was a big motivator, but also a form of "psychological torture," he claims.

Auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers has a different take on the situation at Ste-Thérèse.

"GM worked hard to keep a product going that was not competitive in the marketplace," he says. "It's a situation where General Motors deserves a medal for sticking with it as long as they did and for how they handled it. Impeccable."

Not least among the company's successes has been GM's smooth navigation of a hazardous labour relations environment and delicate political situation in majority-French-speaking Quebec, where language and separatist tensions flare regularly, he added.

Ever since it started cranking out Chevrolet Biscaynes in 1965 - the early days of the Canada-U.S. auto pact - Ste-Thérèse's special status in touchy Ottawa-Quebec relations has not been lost on observers.

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Keen to be seen as a good corporate citizen at a time when it had a 50-per-cent share of the North American auto market, it was no big deal for a then-generous GM to set up a lone fabrication facility in populous, urban Quebec to make up somewhat for the concentration of plants in Southern Ontario, said Michael Robinet, managing director of CSM Worldwide Inc., a research firm in Northville, Mich.

"Part of it is that, back in the sixties, vehicle manufacturers were fairly successful, they were looking at spreading investments throughout both the U.S. and Canada. It was GM fulfilling its obligations to the auto pact."

Quebec also represented a strong, loyal consumer market for GM and it made sense at the time to buy some added goodwill by putting up a plant, he said.

Today, GM - with its shrunken North American market share of about 28 per cent - and rival companies are increasingly looking to cheaper, less-unionized regions in the southern United States and Mexico for expansion, Mr. Robinet said.

Well-regarded Ontario has suffered its share of plant closings and cutbacks, too, but the auto makers - including GM - continue to upgrade and expand select facilities there.

Analysts have said a few more plant closings in North America are probably on the way.

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Quebec's loss of the assembly unit, coupled with Hyundai Motor Co.'s 1994 decision to shut its auto plant in Bromont, Que., doesn't help its reputation and makes it harder for it to attract investment, Mr. Robinet said.

"It is very difficult. The province of Quebec has been somewhat tainted, what with the combination of Ste-Thérèse and Bromont."

A consolation prize of sorts is the Kenworth truck plant - owned by Paccar Inc. of Bellevue, Wash. - across the highway from GM Ste-Thérèse.

GM Ste-Thérèse has had its share of sporadic labour troubles over the years. In 1970, Ste-Thérèse's future was jeopardized by a three-month strike that included demands for greater use of French in the workplace. Hourly workers were up in arms because their union contract was written only in English.

Robert Poirier, the voluble mayor of Boisbriand - population 27,000 - vows he'll do all he can to force GM to "leave Quebec honourably," by at the very least paying back the $220-million interest-free loan it received from Ottawa and Quebec in 1987. (GM says it will pay back the loan when it is due, in 2017.) GM could also show some class by contributing money and resources to an automotive research and development centre, he said.

"I sense that GM isn't listening. They're not interested."

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But he also has harsh words for Ottawa, which he says has been dragging its feet on a promise to help find suitable replacement work for the GM employees, he added.

The threat of a shutdown had been looming over GM Ste-Thérèse for four years and during that entire time GM has been less than responsive, said Mr. Poirier, who is also a member of the Lower Laurentians Automotive Industry Support Committee.

GM Canada spokesman Stew Low says the company wants to explore "areas of mutual interest" with Quebec regarding potential R&D or other operations in the area. And he adds that no effort was spared trying to come up with an alternative use for GM Ste-Thérèse, to no avail.

Mr. Poirier acknowledges that the local economy has grown less dependent on GM and is far more diversified than it once was. In 1970, 40 per cent of the city budget derived from property taxes paid by GM. That has dropped to 9.6 per cent, he said.

One local corporate executive said: "This isn't a one-industry town. In terms of Boisbriand, [the shutdown]is significant, but less so in terms of the surrounding area. Notwithstanding all of that, it's a major loss for the community," especially given the high salaries the workers pulled down.

"Nobody pays like the auto industry," said the executive, who did not want to be identified.

Terry Maxwell is well acquainted with the benefits of a relationship with big GM.

The president of SLP Automotive in Lachine, Que., on the island of Montreal, says he stands to lose 85 per cent of his 220-employee business when Ste-Thérèse shuts down.

"It's going to be really, really difficult," says Mr. Maxwell, whose company customizes Camaros and Firebirds. "It's pretty hard to lay off 200 employees."

He hopes to hire them back gradually as he ratchets up various non-GM projects and says the short-term pain will give way, longer term, to a more diversified customer base. "We'll have several customers instead of just one."

He lays the blame at GM's feet, arguing that it failed to properly market the Camaro and Firebird after shifting production to Ste-Thérèse.

Mr. Low counters that, at some point in the life cycle of any vehicle, a tough decision has to be made as to whether or not to keep pumping money into it. "Does it make sense to spend large amounts of money on updating the platform" if the vehicle is no longer grabbing the attention of consumers, he asked.

Mr. Maxwell is convinced, though, that GM just let the cars run out of gas.

"They were stroking everybody for years that [Ste-Thérèse]would not close when they knew all along it was going to close."

GM Ste-Thérèse got a raw deal, he believes. "It was one of the most productive plants in North America."

Now, GM is blithely walking away, he says. "GM is getting off scot free."

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