Why Bombardier is on the brink in Thunder Bay

The company has announced layoffs, and there’s no work scheduled at the plant beyond 2019. Here’s how the move could affect Thunder Bay and the workers who live there
By Jon Thompson - Published on Jul 15, 2019
The plant in Thunder Bay that’s now owned by Bombardier has been a fixture of the city’s manufacturing industry for more than a century. (Photo courtesy of Bombardier)



THUNDER BAY — The 107-year history of the Thunder Bay plant now owned by Bombardier has been marked by mass layoffs and periods of uncertainty. In 1984, the plant employed just 100 workers; that number dipped to 87 in 1999. But the facility itself has never closed down. Today, however, it’s in jeopardy.

On July 10, Bombardier announced its intention to lay off in November half of the plant’s 1,100 workers and indicated that there’s no work scheduled beyond 2019. Last year, the plant produced 105 rail cars for Metrolinx and 63 streetcars for the Toronto Transit Commission.

The federal and provincial governments have traded barbs over which one is responsible for the lack of business. Federal employment minister and Thunder Bay–Superior North MP Patty Hajdu said in a media statement Wednesday that Premier Doug Ford had “sat on his hands and made empty promises” to local workers. In return, Ford, speaking to media from a premiers’ meeting in Saskatoon, declared that the federal Liberals have done “absolutely nothing to support these people in Thunder Bay.”

The dispute stems from the federal Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, a 2018 agreement that outlines planned infrastructure investments in all provinces and territories.

On May 24, federal infrastructure minister François-Philippe Champagne issued a letter to Ontario’s then-minister of transportation, Jeff Yurek detailing $8.3 billion in federal money for transit, of which $4.9 billion was slated for Toronto and another $593 million for Metrolinx. Champagne noted that provinces must submit formal applications for funding.

The federal government has stated that Ontario hasn’t submitted an application. The provincial government says that it has presented a $28.5 billion plan that’s ready to roll out as soon as Canada signs off. However, when TVO.org asked the province via email whether it had submitted a formal application to the federal government, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation said, “Ontario is working with its project partners to provide project information, including Business Case information, to the federal government for approval.”

On June 5, Greg Rickford, Ontario’s minister of northern development and mines, announced that the province would be placing a $130 million order with Bombardier for 36 GO Transit rail cars.

On Wednesay, Ford pledged to back the $130 million deal and pointed to it as evidence that the province supports Bombardier. “My message to the federal government is: We put our money where our mouth is,” Ford said. “Where is their money?”

The layoff announcement didn’t come as a surprise to plant workers. One employee, who asked to remain anonymous, says he started noticing about three years ago that the volume of orders had begun to decline. He adds that morale slumped when Bombardier made headlines for repeatedly missing its TTC streetcar delivery dates. The employee, who’s worked at the plant for a decade, says his fellow staff have become increasingly worried about their job security.

“I know some with more seniority than me who have already left to beat the rush of people looking for work,” he tells TVO.org. “But I’m sure nobody is going out buying new toys or houses or anything like that because you just never know.”

According to Lakehead University economics professor Livio Di Matteo, economies such as Thunder Bay’s can grow dependent on large manufacturers like Bombardier. “The region, as a whole, has not really grown to a large size of becoming self-sustaining on a growth phase,” he says. “We’ve never really moved beyond the original industries that powered our growth and development.”

Di Matteo believes that Thunder Bay may be able to retain laid-off Bombardier workers — unless the layoffs appear to be permanent. “If you think of when the forest industry shut down, a lot of mechanics and pipefitters continued to live here and went out West for work,” he says. “I don’t think there’s going to be an immediate exodus, assuming there are signals that this is a temporary lull.”

Dominic Pasqualino, the president of Unifor Local 1075, says that in his 32 years at Bombardier, he’s been laid off for more than a year on three separate occasions. During one such layoff, he picked up a job welding for $8 per hour. He’s afraid that the younger generation won’t wait around in Thunder Bay. “In those days, you went to the library to pick up phone books and call out of town to see if there were jobs,” he says. “Now, it’s a whole other world.”

Doug Murray, CEO of the Thunder Bay Economic Development Commission, says that, with governments increasingly highlighting public transit as a priority, a plant such as Bombardier’ should not be short of work: “We have a federal government saying, ‘We want to spend on mass transit.’ You have a province that wants to spend the most money ever on transit. You have a Toronto economy that is expanding.”

But he worries that the mass layoffs could make it more difficult and expensive to ramp up manufacturing should a new contract come in. “The supply chain can’t just be flipped back on,” Murray says. “A lot of the parts come from southern Ontario, and the people who make those parts aren’t necessarily tooled up to make a part for you tomorrow. Some stuff could take six months; some stuff could be a year.”

Pasqualino says that, if the plant is to survive, it will need a “significant” contract — at least 200 vehicles. “Don’t ask me which government is causing the problem, but I haven’t seen any government sign a cheque yet,” he says. “And until I do, let’s face it, if you don’t have customers, you’re not going to have workers. Every day they argue amongst themselves is another day my people are going to be laid off — and they’re going to look for other opportunities.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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