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Think Upstream Radio: When the big employer ghosts a town - now what?

Oshawa is reeling from GM’s decision to stop auto production there. How does a community bounce back from such a jolt?
Broken windows on an abandoned factory.

Trish Hennessy

Maybe this has happened to your community: once thriving, now reeling from the reality that the big employer(s) left town and no one has the answer to this basic question: now what?

The announcement that GM is halting its operations in Oshawa, after 100 years of building automobiles in that city, has understandably left that community reeling.

Glen Pearson knows the feeling. He’s co-director of a food bank in London, Ontario—once a thriving metropolis that attracted corporate headquarters and major manufacturing companies, now a community on the brink.

It was hit hard by the decline in manufacturing. The 2008-09 recession didn’t help. Now 48 per cent of London workers are in either vulnerable or precarious work.

“I look at that and I go what?” Pearson says.

What happens to a community when good jobs disappear? And what kind of upstream thinking is needed to help communities bounce back?

During our conversation, Pearson describes a community that was once bustling with economic activity, good jobs, and a highly engaged citizenry. Then the bottom fell out for London and Pearson says people “started turning blue on their community.”

The number of people turning to the food bank doubled, and then it tripled.

At first, people hoped it was a temporary setback. But then it wasn’t.

“This happened so suddenly and London wasn’t looking at alternatives,” Pearson explains. “We hadn’t done that because we didn’t need it.”

Now, he says, London is waiting for a big corporate player to come in and revive the economy, but it’s not happening—at least not like it used to. It’s time for some upstream thinking.

“We can’t be waiting with baited breath for the big company to say we will save you,” says Pearson.

It’s not just London that’s suffering from the global shift in capitalism. Communities across Canada are facing similar challenges—whether it’s a manufacturing town or a province reliant on fossil fuels, the reality is that Canada’s economy and the labour market is undergoing rapid transformation.

The system is shifting, and in many ways dying, before our eyes. Yet many of Canada’s political leaders are trapped in downstream thinking, trying desperately to hang on to the old ways of managing the economy.

Waiting for a giant corporate saviour can be soul-destroying—especially if you’re living in a community that is clearly in steady decline. The demoralizing impact on a community can be devastating. 

“As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality.” - Blogger Jason Segedy

In our podcast, Pearson and I talk about the problem of waiting for the saviour—and how it’s time to pursue new approaches to economic growth that create decent work and ensure communities are sustainable, inclusive, equitable.

“We need a democratic economic revolution,” Pearson says, calling on communities to actively engage in new ways of managing the economy. As citizens, we hold a wealth of political and economic power, but Pearson says we’re not exercising that power to our fullest ability.

Looking for hope? It lies within each and every one of us. If we want power in the future, we have to exercise our power now.

That’s why Think Upstream is partnering with the London Poverty Research Centre, the London Food Bank, the Sisters of St. Joseph’s, and the Atkinson Foundation to pursue new equitable, inclusive economic development opportunities that could work for cities like London—but it could be a calling for your community, too.

Our London Calling project will look at things that communities are doing to promote not just economic growth for the sake of growth, but economic development opportunities that ensure everyone benefits from that growth—not just wealthy shareholders.

Communities promoting a $15 minimum wage campaign; signing up living wage employers; ensuring public infrastructure dollars include community benefits agreements so that people on the margins get access to decent work; local social impact investing to pay it forward; converting baby boomer retiree companies into worker-owned cooperatives.

That’s just a sampling of what some communities in Canada and beyond are doing to ensure that every job created in their community is a good job and makes for decent work.

Many communities are forced to look at new approaches to the economy because the big players have left town. But if your community’s economy relies on a handful of big companies to keep the local economy going, maybe it’s time to start answering the “now what?” question now instead of later.

Trish Hennessy is a senior communications strategist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the director of Think Upstream


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