How a Quebec factory town transformed itself after a GM closure in 2002

by Christopher Reynolds THE CANADIAN PRESS

BOISBRIAND, Que. – On a suburban tract where a General Motors assembly plant once churned out Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds, Sami Bizri steams up another low-foam latte.

Earlier this year, the 24-year-old became co-owner of a Presse Cafe franchise, which sits in an outlet mall in Boisbriand on a one-square-kilometre stretch north of Montreal. The site also hosts hundreds of new housing units and a gleaming industrial park.

“People have more money here, from what I see, from the cars coming in, coming out,” Bizri says, as a pair of customers stroll toward the Golf Town across the parking lot.

His franchise provides catering up to three times a day for neighbouring manufacturers such as Abipa, a Quebec aeronautics maker founded two years after the GM plant closed in 2002. Workers from the Elopak milk-carton maker drop by for croque monsieurs and macchiatos.

Bizri doesn’t remember the shutdown and the 1,300 layoffs, or the concerns it triggered over jeopardized livelihoods and regional economic health. But he says the community seems to have weathered the storm.

“Everybody talks together here,” he says, surveying the bustling coffee shop. “It’s business meetings, it’s students studying, it’s communities coming together.”

In the wake of GM’s announcement that it will shutter its assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont. as part of a massive restructuring effort, experts point to Boisbriand’s transformation from industrial outpost to mixed-use development as both a model of regeneration and a cautionary tale.

“Closing assembly plants is not unusual. And the economy manages quite well,” said Dennis DesRosiers, an auto industry consultant.

“Are there any negative remnants from GM closing its their plant in Quebec? I’d say no. It may have been good, in fact.”

Prolonging the life of a factory despite lower efficiency and declining demand comes at a cost to both workers and corporations, he said.

“For decades, they kept plants open they should have closed – the one in Montreal being one of the best examples – and ended up going bankrupt,” DesRosiers said.

“Now they’re making tough-ass decisions about what plants need to stay open and what plants need to close,” he said, pointing to Oshawa and four other GM plants in the U.S. slated for closure as part of a shift toward electric and self-driving vehicles.

The Boisbriand plant, also called the Sainte-Therese plant, sat 500 kilometres from the web of assembly operations and parts makers that stretches from Windsor to Oshawa, adding to its transportation costs and placing it outside the southern Ontario auto supply chain.

“The writing was on the wall.”

Not everyone sees Boisbriand’s evolution as a success story – at least not an easy one.

“I think it was a critical loss for the region and for the workers,” said Christian Levesque, professor of employment relations at the Universite de Montreal business school. “After that, many of the parts suppliers disappeared in the region.”

Beyond pocketbook problems, some workers faced the challenge of trading a multi-generational identity rooted in steel and smokestacks for one lodged in glass-and-stucco shopping centres.

“For these workers, this is not a GM plant; it’s their plant,” Levesque said of the Boisbriand and Oshawa employees. “They’re losing a sense of what they are.”

The restaurants and home decor stores that supplanted the 36-year-old factory yielded numerous retail jobs, but they typically lacked the robust wages and benefits enjoyed by unionized auto workers.

Boisbriand, like Oshawa, sits next to a large city, which may mute the impact of a closure. But governments should do more to foster an ecosystem through tax breaks, educational programs and partnerships between companies and institutions to attract auto sector players and “make our locations sticky,” Levesque said.

“We do a lot of assembly, but we don’t do research and development. That’s one of the dangers in Canada’s auto industry.”

In 2002, Quebec’s aeronautics, truck and train manufacturers took on some of the Boisbriand workers, said Unifor research director Bill Murnighan. Others were near retirement age and received full pensions, while more than a handful took up jobs at the GM plant in Oshawa.

“That meant pulling up all their families and leaving the city they’d lived in for so many years,” Boisbriand Mayor Marlene Cordato said.

Worker resentment was all the keener due to a $220-million no-interest loan by the provincial and federal governments to revamp the plant in 1987, she recalled.

Cordato, a city councillor when GM made the announcement, remembers struggling to find a viable path to revive the plant site. A provincially backed economic mission to Europe to recruit car makers for the facility came back empty-handed.

“They didn’t find anyone. It was a hard time for car builders. So we had to change our view,” she said.

The city changed the zoning and courted developers to help produce a vast outlet mall, the city’s eighth industrial park and more than 800 homes composed largely of townhouses and low-rise apartments – with 500 more units in the works, the mayor said.

The process wasn’t quick or smooth.

Construction – still ongoing 16 years after the plant shutdown – halted for a year and a half following the 2008-09 financial crisis. But the site now generates taxes worth 16 per cent of the municipality’s $64.5 million budget, roughly the same percentage as GM before it closed, Cordato said.

“GM was part of our history, so it was very hard when it closed down. But I think we’ve made a good change with what was given to us,” she said.