COVID recovery must include a new vision for Canadian production

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Jerry Dias, Unifor National President

Across this country, individual Canadians are pulling out their sewing machines to make surgical masks and donating them to local hospitals and grocery stores. Others are using their home 3D printers to make the parts for visors.

It’s heartwarming, inspiring and shows the power of a motivated community instinctively making sure their country is properly supplied by making for ourselves the things we need most.

It is that instinct we must all follow now as a country.

Even as our governments work day and night to contain the spread of COVID-19, this pandemic has exposed deep flaws in our ability to manufacture the essential goods we need most.

It took just a matter of days for our economy to implode.

Businesses shuttered and millions upon millions were left unemployed, all rightly turning to governments for help and support.

Back in March, the federal government called on domestic producers to build desperately needed life-saving medical supplies, such as ventilators. But if they were expecting to crank production at existing facilities, governments quickly realized there were little, if any, left to crank. Instead, pleas went out to manufacturers to make personal protective equipment in place of other things, such as auto parts.

As demand for essential goods skyrockets, and border restrictions tighten, our over-dependence on globalization, free trade and global supply chains for everything from food to facemasks has quickly failed us. Decades of outsourcing has not only wiped out hundreds of thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs, it has limited our ability to make the stuff we need, especially in times of crisis.

Few in government heeded these manufacturing sector warnings, often citing the new “Knowledge Economy”, and all that. Unfair trade deals have restricted Canada’s ability to encourage and grow our own industry, something Unifor and the rest of the labour movment have long warned against. As we are seeing now, we can no longer allow ourselves to be restricted in this way.

Now, governments are realizing you cannot create productive capacity out of thin air, standing helplessly by as our health system overstretches and more Canadians die.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There has been some good news in recent weeks. A number of Canadian companies, including some Unifor-represented workplaces, have stepped up to lend support. Auto parts suppliers such as Woodbridge Foam, are making protective masks. Ford’s engine plant in Windsor is producing face shields. Railcar builders in Thunder Bay are set to make made-in-Ontario ventilators. All noble efforts.

Sadly, these are only temporary fixes. They do not meaningfully address our needs as the COVID crisis worsens or prepare us for any future crisis. 

We have the opportunity – and the moral obligation – to create a more equitable, fair, resilient, and sustainable economy. The coronavirus crisis has shown us that maintaining and promoting our own domestic productive capacity is as much as public good as anything else.

Governments need to re-think their role in initiating, supporting, and promoting domestic production of goods and services. That must include a critical review of our international trade and investment obligations, and the responsibility by multi-national corporations to “build where they sell.”

Frankly, it must also include a critical discussion of how government must expand its role in providing public services, such as health,long-term care and pharmacare. What is now abundantly clear is that public services also include things such as food production, as well as manufacturing.  

Canada cannot follow blindly the same corporate-crafted logic that has utterly failed us in this crisis, the logic that critical infrastructure is best left to private business and profit seekers. We must have the courage to think beyond this and be ambitious as we move forward.

This means funding and direct engagement in targeted sectors such as healthcare, biomedicine and Agri-food.  It means developing comprehensive industrial strategies to incubate and expand critical domestic manufacturing capacity, including in clean energy, transportation, and others.

Unfortunately, it took the coronavirus crisis to answer the question, “What’s so wrong if we no longer make things here in Canada?” As we have seen these past weeks, a lot is wrong, in fact.

By working together and listening to the advice of experts, Canadians have begun to “flatten the curve,” but the recovery is just beginning. We must also begin to look toward the future and decide what kind of world we will choose to live in beyond the pandemic.

A better future for Canada includes being able to build and deliver essential goods and services here at home.