Thunder Bay, Ont., can relax. The Bombardier rail car manufacturing plant there will almost certainly get more government orders.
Maybe they won’t come quickly enough to forestall temporary layoffs. But unless the rules of politics have changed completely, the plant will stay in business and jobs will be preserved.
That’s because it’s in the political interests of both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals and Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s provincial Progressive Conservatives for this to happen.
Bombardier understands the game. It knows that both the Toronto Transit Commission and the provincial transportation agency Metrolinx need more rolling stock.
It knows that while both of these bodies depend, in part, on money from Ottawa, they take their ultimate marching orders from Queen’s Park.
It knows that the two levels of government are at daggers drawn. And it knows that there is a federal election in October.
Bombardier announced the obvious last week: Since its current contracts with the TTC and Metrolinx are close to completion, mass layoffs will occur unless new business is found.
The announcement came as no surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. Still, it had the desired effect.
Faced with the spectre of 550 layoffs by November, Ottawa and Queen’s Park were caught wrong-footed.
They began by publicly blaming one another. They will almost certainly end by agreeing, in the spirit of federal-provincial co-operation, that Bombardier should get more government contracts.
The drama is necessary because Bombardier is no longer as popular as it used to be.
It was once viewed as Canada’s feisty national champion — a little Ski-Doo maker taking on the world. Billions of dollars in public subsidies later, it now comes across as just another greedy multinational.
If they had their druthers, it’s not clear that either the TTC or Metrolinx would sign contracts again with Bombardier. But, of course, they don’t have their druthers. They will do whatever Ontario’s provincial government tells them to do.
Provincial transportation policy is in chaos now, thanks to the Ford regime. The PC government’s determination to radically overhaul public transit in the Greater Toronto Area has resulted in normal business — such as signing new rail car contracts — being put on indefinite hold.
Bombardier’s Thunder Bay layoff announcement is a reminder from the company that there is a real political cost to this.
And the feds? Bombardier used to be able to depend on the support of the federal Liberals. But they are no longer so reliable.
Last year, the Trudeau government did nothing to prevent the crown corporation Via Rail from signing a $1-billion rail car contract with Bombardier’s German competitor, Siemens AG.
Now that the fate of Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant has become an election issue, the hope is that Trudeau’s Liberals won’t be so cavalier again.
In a rational world, Ottawa and Queen’s Park would use their leverage to wring concessions from Bombardier.
They might, for instance, demand that the company manufacture the component parts of its rail cars in Canada rather than low-wage Mexico.
Since provincial government procurement is involved, this would be considered legitimate under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
It would, in effect, be a Canadian version of the Buy America policy pursued by both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
In the end, something will be done to deal with the political problem posed by the Thunder Bay layoffs.
Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.