GM’s exit leaves a legacy

General Motors downtown Oshawa location in the 1940's. None of the GM buildings are standing today. Photo credit: Oshawa Museum

Also written by Meagan Secord

All eyes are on Oshawa after the announcement that General Motors Canada (GM) is closing their doors starting in 2019.

“Historically, the automotive sector was a lot larger here in Oshawa,” says Alexander Gates, executive director and curator at the Canadian Automative Museum in Oshawa.

Back in the 80s, GM employed over 20 thousand workers.

“It’s been a long term employer of the Oshawa community and it will be a shame to see it leave,” says Jennifer Weymark, archivist from Oshawa Museum.

According to the General Motors Canada Fact Sheet for 2017, the total number of employees at the GM Oshawa site was 2,752 making GM the largest private employer in Oshawa.

This is one of five closures for GM locations but the one here in Oshawa tells a deeper story.

“The city has grown in terms of its population…but (GM) is still one of the largest employers in the region so it will obviously have a large impact,” says Gates.

In a statement released to the college community on Nov. 26, Durham College president Don Lovisa wrote, “The ramifications of the closures will affect individuals and businesses alike whose livelihoods were linked to GM.”

This year marks the 100-year anniversary for GM in Oshawa. The company has been a large source of employment for the Durham Region for a century.

The McLaughlin legacy began in 1876 when John McLaughlin moved to Oshawa with his carriage company.

Weymark says Oshawa already had a great deal of infrastructure, including the harbour and the railway, which allowed for McLaughlin Carriage Company to thrive.

However, the company had many rough patches. In 1889, McLaughlin Carriage Company burned to the ground, forcing McLaughlin to move to Gananoque, Ontario.

A year later, Weymark says Oshawa offered McLaughlin a tax break and the opportunity to bring the company back to the city.

General Motors Canada came into being in 1918 when General Motors Corp. merged with Mclaughlin Motor Car Company.

Inside of General Motors Oshawa in the 1920's. Photo credit: Oshawa Museum

“Beyond employing Oshawa residents, GM was very good at giving back to the community,” says Weymark. She says Lakeview Park, where GM is located, was a gift from GM to the city.

She says the park is a “wonderful, lasting legacy.”

On the Durham College campus, the Automotive Centre for Excellence has General Motors written in brass letters on its exterior wall.

The impact on the region has been substantial.

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GM has had an impact on Durham Region in many areas. Photo credit: Meagan Secord

In 1937, 4,000 GM workers went on strike from April 1 to 23. Weymark says the main focus was to have their union recognized. The workers wanted shorter days and better working environments.

This strike changed the face of the labour movement in Canada, according to Weymark and the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Women working in GM in 1944. The company played a large role in the Allied war effort. Photo credit: Oshawa Museum

In the 1980s, GM Autoplex in Oshawa was labelled the centrepiece of GM in Canada. The Oshawa location was one of the largest car assembly plants worldwide.

Infographic showing a timeline of General Motors. Photo credit: Keisha Slemensky

With the rich history GM has in Oshawa, the community of Oshawa, and workers of GM are upset and worried about the future of the city.

Previous Mayor of Oshawa and current Durham Regional Chair, John Henry, shared his devastation with the community over Twitter after GM released the statement.

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A screen grab from John Henry's Twitter.

GM has said the reason the Oshawa plant is shutting down, among other plants, is because they are moving towards a more electric and sustainable future of vehicles.

In response, the city of Oshawa has made a public statement. In the statement, Oshawa says, “Oshawa is the ideal location and well-positioned to drive GM’s new focus on electric and autonomous vehicle programs.”

Gates says this isn’t the first time GM has ceased operations in the pursuit of innovation.

The company ended the production of buggies and carriages in Canada to explore production in the automotive sector before it was even called GM.

“They really led the way in ending the horseand carriage business here in the country,” says Gates. “You can trust them to see kind of what the next stage is, if this is really the end of that production if it leads into something new in the future.”

The city of Oshawa is calling on GM to find ways to innovate here.

In the statement released Nov. 27, the city says, “We are calling on GM to work with the City and all levels of government to identify new opportunities to transition Oshawa’s highly trained automotive workforce.”

On Wed. Nov. 28, Ontario premier Doug Ford said union leaders and politicians are selling false hope because privately they know GM is not coming back.

Politicians are promising to stand by Oshawa no matter what.

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A screen grab from Doug Fords Twitter.

“I think we’re all hopeful that there is a lot of skilled and very creative engineers and researchers that work here in the area,” says Gates. “On a positive note, be hopeful that if there is a sort of next stage in transportation, whether that be self-driving electric cars, mass transit, it would be great if those were produced here in town.”