Sami Bizri, co-owner of the Presse Cafe at the Faubourg Boisbriand power centre is seen Tuesday, November 27, 2018 in Boisbriand, Que..The site of the former General Motors auto plant has been converted to a shopping centre and condominiums. Boisbriand used to be home to a General Motors plant but when the automotive giant closed it in 2002 the town north of Montreal had to reinvent itself.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Sami Bizri, co-owner of the Presse Cafe at the Faubourg Boisbriand power centre is seen Tuesday, November 27, 2018 in Boisbriand, Que..The site of the former General Motors auto plant has been converted to a shopping centre and condominiums. Boisbriand used to be home to a General Motors plant but when the automotive giant closed it in 2002 the town north of Montreal had to reinvent itself.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

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

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Premier Jason Kenney condemns Joe Biden’s plan to scrap the Keystone XL pipeline expansion, in a Jan. 18, 2021 story. (Photo by Paul Taillon/Office of the Premier)
Kenney, Moe condemn Biden’s plan to scrap Keystone XL on Day 1 of presidency

Kenney prepared to ‘use all legal avenues available’

A member of staff at the university hospital injects the Moderna vaccine against COVID-19 into a patient in Duesseldorf, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. (Federico Gambarini/dpa via AP)
WHO chief lambasts vaccine profits, demands elderly go first

One poor country received a mere 25 vaccine doses

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19.  (File photo)
Gov’t reports two more COVID-19 deaths in Red Deer on Sunday

Nineteen new deaths, including two in Red Deer, were reported by the… Continue reading

Dwayne Buckle, 40 of Red Deer finished a 1,638-kilometre walk, in honour of his family. The 12-week, 82 day-journey wrapped up in Port Hardy, B.C. on Monday. Facebook photo
Red Deer man completes 1,638 km hike for cancer research

Dwayne Buckle, a Red Deer firefighter returned home Friday after his 12-week journey

Indonesian soldiers distribute relief goods for those affected by the earthquake at a stadium in Mamuju, West Sulawesi, Indonesia, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. Rescuers retrieved more bodies from the rubble of homes and buildings toppled by the 6.2 magnitude earthquake while military engineers managed to reopen ruptured roads to clear access for aid relief goods. (AP Photo/Daeng Mansur)
Aid effort intensifies after Indonesia quake that killed 84

Nearly 20,000 were survivors moved to shelters and more than 900 people were injured

Deeply covered with snow are the trees at the Grenzadler in Oberhof, Germany, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. Two World Cups are taking place in the town on the Rennsteig this weekend. In front of empty crowds, the best lugers and biathletes compete for World Cup points. (Martin Schutt/dpa via AP)
Freezing weather hits much of Europe, from Poland to Turkey

A skier in Switzerland died after buried by an avalanche on the weekend

Canada forward Cyle Larin, left, vies for the ball with Mexico defender Nestor Araujo during the second half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match Wednesday, June 19, 2019, at Mile High Stadium in Denver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, David Zalubowski
Canadian forward Cyle Larin plays provider in Besiktas win over Istanbul rival

Larin into the game having scored six times in his previous three outings

Skip Brendan Bottcher celebrates his victory over Team Koe in the men’s final of the Humpty’s Champions Cup in Saskatoon, Sask., on April 28, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Matt Smith
Curling Alberta decision will have ripple effect on potential wild-card teams

National federation adds two more wild-card teams to the field at Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Tim Hortons Brier

A cat named Willow is shown in this recent handout photo. Victoria firefighter Capt. Tim Hanley says using a jackhammer and other home repair tools to save a cat stuck in a tiny basement drainpipe ranks as the strangest rescue call he's been on in his 20-year career. Hanley says he and three other firefighters spent more than two hours using sledgehammers and a jackhammer to break through Victoria homeowner Emma Hutchinson's concrete basement floor to free Willow, a nine-month-old kitten. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Twitter, City of Victoria
Victoria firefighters use homeowners’ jackhammer to rescue cat trapped in tiny pipe

VICTORIA — A Victoria firefighter says using a jackhammer and other home… Continue reading

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on December 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No place for ‘far right’ in Conservative Party: O’Toole

OTTAWA — Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says there is “no place… Continue reading

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage addresses the attendees while Tom Olsen, Managing Director of the Canadian Energy Centre, looks on at a press conference at SAIT in Calgary on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Fulmes
‘Morally and ethically wrong:’ Court to hear challenge to Alberta coal policy removal

First Nations, ranchers, municipal officials and environmentalists hope to persuade a judge… Continue reading

Most Read