Ontario is undermining its vision of being an electric vehicle manufacturing centre

When it comes to cars, Ontario knows a thing or two. After all, the province ranks second only to Michigan for North American vehicle production.

Ontarians will also know that the auto world is partway through a propulsion evolution. In July, the federal government announced Canada will ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035. And it’s far from alone: Quebec, California, the U.K. and the EU all have similar commitments. Perhaps most importantly for Ontario’s auto sector, President Biden announced last week that the U.S. is aiming for 50 per cent electric vehicle sales by 2030.

And as millions of North Americans shift from pump to plug, the auto sector will be shifting too. It’s a road that Canada is already someway down, with Detroit’s Big Three automakers recently announcing deals to build electric vehicles (EVs) in Ontario, supporting thousands of Canadian jobs.

Yet, despite touting Ontario as a “global hub for EV manufacturing,” the provincial government has done almost nothing to help Ontario live up to its EV potential. And it’s threatening its auto future.

But let’s start with what Ontario has going for it.

The province is uniquely suited for building the new generation of vehicles: It’s car-building capabilities go without saying. It also has metal and mineral resources needed to make EV batteries and leading automotive research labs, giving the province an even sharper competitive edge.

Accordingly, Stellantis said recently that it’s considering Ontario as a possible home for its new battery manufacturing plant. There are also rumours of a potential $2-billion EV battery plant coming to Windsor.

But these deals are far from done and dusted. And there remain large and looming speed bumps that could result in Ontario squandering its myriad EV advantages.

For starters, Ontarians aren’t driving EVs. That’s a problem when vehicle manufacturers are increasingly adopting a strategy of “build where you sell.”

Last year, there were more EVs registered in Metro Vancouver than in all of Ontario. This isn’t because Ontarians are particularly different from British Columbians. It’s because they have different governments, with very different EV agendas.

When Premier Ford took office, he cancelled the province’s EV rebate program (something that Canadians in eight other provinces and territories can access), deleted EV requirements in the Ontario building code and ripped out public EV charging stations that had already been installed.

The vacuum of Ontarian EV policies has had knock-on effects for electric vehicle supply. A prospective EV buyer in Ontario is more than three times less likely to find an electric car on an Ontario dealership lot than a B.C. buyer. And despite it being the most populous province in Canada, automakers tend to bypass Ontario when launching new EV models.

Put simply, the Ontario government has been missing in action. To its credit, Ottawa has taken some important steps to capitalize on Canada’s electric vehicle potential, announcing big tax breaks for businesses that manufacture EVs and batteries, while supporting deals with major players like Ford and Lion Electric. The feds also introduced national EV rebates, so at least Ontarians can get a break in the absence of any provincial support.

Next door, Quebec is working hard to turn its battery industry vision into a reality, channelling dollars toward growing its industry. Yet, despite being the province that stands to gain—and lose—the most, the Ontario government has offered up fewer investment dollars, no industrial policy plays, and otherwise no real bids to attract big battery players.

Championing Ontario’s auto sector without also supporting the EV industry is like hitting the accelerator and the brake at the same time.

Electric vehicles represent a huge opportunity to retain and grow Ontario’s auto sector. Failing to live up to that potential would not only be a shame for many Ontarian workers. It would also earn a failing grade for those in power who’d had the ability to build a foundation for success—and squandered it.

This post originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

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