In Toronto last August, a couple of hours after the federal government and Volkswagen Group signed a memorandum of understanding on critical minerals, François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and industry, sat alongside executives from the automaker to take questions from reporters.
The room was mostly empty as the panel talked through the relatively vague nonbinding deal.
It was a startlingly unassuming start to what is now being touted as the largest auto investment in Canadian history.
Volkswagen’s battery-cell plant in St. Thomas, Ont., which wouldn’t be announced until March, was something just short of a fantasy. It had been about 35 years since Canada landed investment from a new automaker. The lack of firm commitments in the initial VW pact gave little indication that was about to change.
Within a half-hour, the press conference broke up with little fanfare.
I ducked into the nearest elevator, punched the button for the lobby and then scrambled to keep the doors from closing on Champagne and his press secretary as they piled in, rushing to their next stop. We exchanged a few pleasantries, though having already spoken with each of them twice that day about the deal, there was little left to say.
But before the elevator doors lurched open on the ground floor, Champagne offered up something novel.
“These guys are serious,” he said with a confident nod.
Champagne had traveled to Germany and Japan earlier in the year, meeting with a series of automakers during each visit. His pitch for Canada had gone over well at every stop, he told me after the trips, with a tinge of his usual salesmanship.
His Volkswagen comment took a more earnest tone, though. Something, it seemed, was different about this prospect.
In October, the automaker began holding regular meetings with the Ontario government. Those weekly check-ins continued into 2023, by which time VW had a small army of staff registered as lobbyists with both the provincial and federal governments.
Behind the scenes, Volkswagen and its battery subsidiary, PowerCo, visited the Ontario site they would eventually choose. The team made its first trip to St. Thomas, midway between Toronto and Windsor, in November.
Then Champagne was back in Germany in December. In Wolfsburg, top VW brass named Canada as “one logical option” for the company’s first North American battery-cell plant. They stopped short of saying there were other countries in the running, likely weighing how Canada could compete with large incentives offered by the United States, which were beginning to attract battery investment.
The eventual announcement naming St. Thomas as the winning location came on March 13. It was hardly a surprise to Automotive News Canada, although before that morning, both levels of government said nothing was certain. Details about the multibillion-dollar project are still outstanding, with Volkswagen and the governments working to schedule an official event in St. Thomas. But while we’ve been left to speculate at the scale of investment and size of the plant, one thing has been made abundantly clear: These guys were serious.