It has been obvious for years that automakers in Canada are beholden to and often muzzled by their parent companies, whether based in the United States, Japan or elsewhere.
If Automotive News Canada wants to know how GM or Ford of Canada is handling a certain issue, we’re often told that they’re waiting for word from the Americans.
The issue came to the forefront this week in a critical way as the car companies grappled with how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Few would argue the United States — and other countries — fell short in its initial response.
Dr. Anthony Fauci from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases admitted as much. President Donald Trump went so far as to label the crisis a political “hoax” before doing an about-face to declare a national emergency.
But because the U.S. government’s response has been one of denial, confident containment, hoax, task force and now national emergency — also slow, confusing and uncoordinated — there has been a delay and no clear direction about what automakers should do in an effort to protect their businesses and their employees. And because Canadian subsidiaries take their cues from their U.S. and overseas overlords, those decisions might not be best for the general public here, or even align with our own government’s policy. Canada becomes infected by foreign policy that is slow and uncoordinated, adding further confusion when we need clarity and consistent action.
As of this writing, automakers with assembly plants in Ontario are waiting from directives about COVID-19 that come from beyond our borders.
GM Canada this week told me it would follow the decisions borne from a task force between the Detroit Three and the United Autoworkers in Detroit. Toyota plants in Ontario will no longer work overtime and Saturdays … because Toyota North America said on Tuesday to stop. On a side note, given the current and forecasted economic situation, would there really be a need for vehicles built on overtime? Probably not.
Ford Canada hasn’t responded to a single request for comment since the crisis ramped up last week, which is baffling since we all know that early response has been the cornerstone policy of the provincial and federal governments. As most of the country shuts down, where’s the info? What’s the plan.
FCA Canada told me it’s checking with bosses outside the country before it takes any action.
Through phone calls and emails, Honda Canada appears to be the only Canadian entity not waiting on approval from executives outside the country, although that isn’t known for certain.
Together, the automakers operate seven assembly plants, three engine plants and a transmission factory in Ontario. They employ thousands of Canadians, some of whom are legitimately frightened. They share change rooms, vending machines, washrooms and cafeterias, often en masse during breaks and lunch hours. They then return home to loved ones, shop and and more in their communities.
But none of the Canadian executives can make their own decision for the good of the Canadians.
I’m not a doctor or public health official, and I don’t have the answer. But waiting for a directive from bosses based in a country already staring down a medical crisis doesn’t seem like the right one.