Although that major announcement Thursday – big bucks to Ford – concerned a major investment in battery electric car manufacturing in this province, it was also a signal that Ontario is prepared to go whichever way the wind blows to support the auto industry during the zero-emissions revolution.
Translation: If that revolution is electric, so be it.
But, if it’s something else, like hydrogen, that’s okay too, because Ontario will be ready, Vic Fedeli, Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, told me in conversation earlier this week.
“We are the No. 2 auto making centre in North America,” Fedeli said, “and the No. 2 technology centre. That comes from our ability to pivot and to make whatever products the manufacturers deem necessary, whether they be conventional vehicles, battery electric vehicles, or hydrogen-powered vehicles.
“We have a supply chain of over 700 parts firms employing over 63,000 people and more than 500 tool, die and mold makers in this province. So we have the people who can make anything and everything the auto manufacturers may want. And let me tell you, this announcement is a real game-changer: it sets up Ontario for the future and gives us long-term stability.”
Here’s what I’ve been talking about in the previous four paragraphs. The Ford Motor Co. of Canada was the recipient Thursday of $295-million in investment from Ontario that matches the earlier contribution from Ottawa that will go toward the retooling of the company’s Oakville Assembly Complex to make it Ford’s global hub for battery EV production.
When you take the federal government’s money, and Ontario’s, plus Ford’s $1.2-billion investment (correct: that’s Billion), you come up with the largest investment in the province’s auto sector in a generation.
Ford’s Oakville plant employs more than 3,000 people and this new money will be used to build a flexible manufacturing system that will be able to turn out many battery electric vehicle (BEV) models. Oakville will also install a battery-pack assembly line that will make the factory the No. 1 Ford BEV plant on the continent.
All the usual suspects were at Thursday’s announcement – the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, the premier, Doug Ford, my friend Fedeli and representatives of the Ford and the autoworkers’ union. And the politicians, in particular, had their messaging all polished up about how wonderful the whole business is.
Which makes it nice to be able to question a guy like Fedeli at length, rather than having to stick to the current format of one question, one follow-up that we’re all now familiar with because of the pandemic.
Take mining, for instance. Because of the minerals needed to make EV batteries, isn’t this revolution an opportunity for the province’s mining industry to jump in?
“You bet,” Fedeli said. “There’s cobalt in Cobalt (a small town 180 km north of North Bay), and we have nickel in Sudbury, lithium in northwestern Ontario, graphite in Hearst. We have all the critical minerals in northern Ontario. That’s why this investment by Ford and the federal and provincial governments is so important. It is not just manufacturing; it’s many things.”
In a veiled shot at the McGuinty-Wynne governments, Fedeli said that over the last 15 years, the province’s competitiveness had declined noticeably. Something had to change to get the economy moving again.
“Premier Ford has spent the last year traveling around Ontario, talking with the automakers and those in the supply chain,” Fedeli said, “and he decided the best way to jump-start manufacturing was to reduce the cost of doing business. One example: Workplace Safety Insurance has been reduced by 47 per cent. That was just lowering the costs, we didn’t remove any benefits. But that adds up to $2.2 billion – huge money that can be reinvested. So we’ve made Ontario a more attractive place to do business.”
I was surprised when Fedeli pointed out that of the $300 billion that’s been spent globally on EVs, not one penny of that money came to Canada. It has to make you wonder. That is why this turnaround is so important. Said the minister:
“We’ve got all the pieces now, to go to these companies and say that it’s time for you to invest in battery EV production in Ontario because we’ve positioned the province for long-term sustainability.
“Ford Motor will help to position us as the place to begin production of the next generation of vehicles. They’re good partners and we’re excited about the future.”
I was in Tennessee 18 months ago, or so, for the opening of a new Hankook tire factory to service all of North America, and in speaking to the governor and other politicians – Senator Martha Blackburn, et al – I was really impressed by the “we can do anything” attitude they all exuded.
Since then, that state has seen its potential explode – the Grand Ol’ Opry is ancient history now, boy – and, in talking to Fedeli, it’s so refreshing to see that kind of enthusiasm on display here in Ontario again.
I, for one, really missed it.