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An LRT train sits outside the Bombardier plant in Thunder Bay, which has built many of the vehicles powering public transit in Ontario over the decades.

Photography by David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Marcus Potter is laughing it up with his work pals at Cheers, a bar with an unoriginal name in a Thunder Bay strip mall. Bottles and cans of beer, two apiece, stand on the table in front of them.

This was the day that Mr. Potter and dozens of other highly skilled and well-paid workers were laid off from the sprawling Bombardier plant down the road, a fixture in this broad-shouldered northern community for more than a century.

Mr. Potter ended his shift at 3:30 p.m. and then walked out the door, stepping into the biting cold of a Thunder Bay November. He isn’t sure when he will return. An electrician and finisher, he put the final touches on streetcars and rail cars. He was hired on at Bombardier only in 2017. That puts him low on the seniority list.

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He doesn’t look worried. A big guy with a bushy beard and a Denver Broncos tuque, he says he might go back to building houses. Or he might just wait and hope to get called back if the plant lands some new contracts. Single and 28, he has time and options.

His friends at the table seem equally unflustered by the 550 layoffs, which started last Friday and will eventually cut the plant’s work force by about half. One guy who is facing layoff in the new year says he may take some time to chill in Cuba. Another says he might go work in his cousin’s hydraulics company. All of them hope to get hired back.

Current and laid-off Bombardier employees commiserate at a local bar.

For these men and just about everyone else in Thunder Bay, the idea that the plant might shut its doors altogether is close to unthinkable.

The 550,000-square-foot factory next to the Kaministiquia River is the city’s strong right arm, inseparable as a limb. Thousands of Thunder Bay residents have laboured in its cavernous work bays over the years, making everything from warplanes to tree-farming machinery to Toronto’s sleek (and often delayed) new streetcars. Some local families have seen three and even four generations work at the plant. Few enterprises are woven into the identity of a Canadian city as this one is into Thunder Bay’s.

And yet, it could happen, if not now then some day.

The Massey-Harris farm machinery complex that was once the cornerstone of Toronto’s manufacturing economy is long gone, replaced by townhouses and condos. Montreal’s towering Canada Malting silos have stood abandoned for 30 years, artifacts of a vanished era of brewing and distilling. Only last year General Motors announced it was closing its auto plant in its historic Canadian hub of Oshawa, Ont., leaving only a fragment of its operations behind.

The Thunder Bay plant is the great survivor. It has bent metal into wheels and wings through two world wars. It has gone through spectacular booms and depressing busts. It has been mothballed for years, only to roar back to life. Tour the vast plant, and you can feel the history all around.

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During the Second World War, the Thunder Bay plant built more than 1,400 Hawker Hurricane fighter planes for the Allied war effort. In those days, it was owned by Canadian Car and Foundry, or 'Can Car,' and would have two more owners before Bombardier took over in 1992.

After the Second World War, the plant shifted its focus to building transit buses and streetcars. Here, a finished LRT train goes through final process at the plant in 2019.

Almost half a kilometre long, with cathedral-high ceilings, the factory stands between the river and the airport in the southern end of Thunder Bay. Visitors can still see an indent in the earth that is what remains of the launch slip for the minesweepers built there during for the First World War. Two of them went down in a Lake Superior storm before they could reach the French Navy. When the company pulled down one of its buildings a few years ago, it found shell casings from the Hurricane fighter planes assembled at the plant for the Second World War. Workers had set sandbags against a wall, arranged the planes to face them and fired their machine guns to make sure they worked.

Its human history is just as striking. The head of the plant union, Dominic Pasqualino, traces his family’s association with the facility back to his grandmother, a poor immigrant from Italy’s Calabria region who worked in the factory kitchen. Her son, Mr. Pasqualino’s father, followed her through the factory doors and stayed for four decades. Mr. Pasqualino worked beside his dad, hanging train doors. Even his daughter worked there briefly.

On a smoke break, union chief Dominic Pasqualino discusses the layoffs at the Thunder Bay plant.

At an open house for the public this month, the all-in-the-family spirit was on display. Workers brought their children to eat free hot dogs and ride the Toronto streetcars along a test track. Retired employees with canes and walkers looked at old photos from vanished eras. When they die, the plant will lower the flags at the gate to half-mast to mark their passing. This place remembers its past. And what a past it is.

George V was on the throne when the plant first opened in 1912. The booming twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur, later to be combined as Thunder Bay, had ambitions of becoming the new Chicago. City fathers lured Montreal’s Canadian Car and Foundry Co. to town to set up a railway-car factory, offering tax breaks and riverfront property. By 1918 it was building 32 boxcars a day.

The 1920s and 30s were fallow years as contracts dried up and the company’s work force shrunk to a handful of maintenance workers. Production ramped up again with the approach and then the outbreak of another world war. The factory hired throngs of new workers, many of them women replacing men who had gone off to fight. According to Can Car, a history of the plant by Gordon Burkowski, 40 per cent of the 6,760 workers were women in 1944. At least one of them is still around, at 96.

The war’s end brought mass layoffs. Three thousand workers went out the door days after hostilities ended. The plant moved into building transit buses and streetcars. Next came commuter trains and subway cars, many of them destined for Toronto. Generations of straphangers have travelled to work on cars from the Thunder Bay plant. It built the spacious Toronto Rockets in service since 2011. It supplied the growing GO train network for Toronto’s sprawling suburbs and exurbs. It found markets for the commuter cars in California, Utah, Florida and New Mexico.

A finished green GO Transit train goes through final assembly. The plant's big contracts for the GO trains and streetcars are running out, and layoffs have dramatically shrunk the work force.

Randi Manduca inspects one of the vehicles under assembly. She's worked at the Bombardier plant for eight years.

Bombardier took over in 1992. The international plane and train company founded by snowmobile maker Joseph-Armand Bombardier is just the latest of several owners to slap its name on the plant.

More than once over the decades, it has looked as if the place would finally go under. It was down to 100 workers and fewer in the mid 1980s and again in the late 1990s. It came right to the brink in the late 1950s. Can-Car Plant to Close Here, said a big black headline in a local paper. But after an intense local drive to lobby Ottawa for help, a few life-saving contracts appeared and the plant lived on to fight another day.

Bombardier insists it will happen again. New business is bound to come along. The Ontario government, for one, is promising to spend billions on new subway and other transit lines.

Plant manager Dave Black sits in his office.

Plant manager Dave Black glows with pride as he guides a visitor around the bright, busy floor of the plant, showing off new streetcars in gleaming red and the bilevel GO cars in avocado green. Country music plays in one GO unit as finishers make their last checks. A streetcar stands in a sealed compartment, ready for high-pressure spraying aimed to make sure it is waterproof. Another is getting fibreglass panels applied to its metal frame in a temperature-controlled bonding chamber.

Maintenance workers bustle around in special cargo bikes that help them cover the plant’s long distances. “Material expediters” deliver parts and tools in motorized carts, honking their horns to warn they are approaching.

The Thunder Bay plant is about to get a lot quieter. Big contracts for the GO trains and streetcars are running out. The last of the 204 Toronto streetcars is to be delivered by the end of the year. What happens to the plant then? What happens to Thunder Bay? No new deals big enough to sustain the site have been signed, though Bombardier says it is chasing them hard. “Buy America” rules make selling to the U.S. market a challenge.

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Employees mill about the parking lot on a smoke break.

The layoffs aren’t as hard on the city as they might have been when Thunder Bay relied more heavily on industry for its daily bread. The forest sector hit a wall years ago. Pulp and paper mills closed. Many grain elevators in the port are idle.

The city now makes its main living as a service centre for Northern Ontario. Thirty per cent of employment is in the broader public sector, compared with 20 per cent for Canada as a whole, says Lakehead University economics professor Livio Di Matteo. The regional hospital is the biggest employer, with nearly three times the staff of the plant even before the Bombardier layoffs.

Even so, 500 jobs is 500 jobs. Bombardier remains the biggest private-sector employer in the city. Dozens of smaller firms rely on it, from parts suppliers to coffee shops where workers go when they get off shift.

Down at Cheers, they worry about the impact on the community. But, no, it’s not the end of the world. Sitting next to his laid-off workmate Marcus Hopper, Dylan Lagimodiere, 24, says that on the factory floor, life will go on. Even with the layoffs, they have trains to get out the door. When guys such as Mr. Hopper leave, workmates say their goodbyes, “but we still build,” as they always have at the plant by the river.

Steam hangs over the train tracks away from the Bombardier plant toward the Resolute Mill factory.


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