Innovation minister hopes to build EV supply chain: ‘A golden opportunity for Canada’ – National
When Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne steps up in front of a microphone to talk about the electrification of Canada’s auto industry, he has a favorite phrase to sum up his efforts to attract global investment: “Not everyone in the world wakes up and thinks about Canada.”
Changing that is his job, as he sees it.
“I never stop,” the 52-year-old former lawyer and business development strategist said in an interview. “You know me. I’m pretty stubborn.”
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Champagne is a ball of energy that earned it the affectionate nickname “Franky Bubbles” among some Ottawa guys. Interviewing him is like trying to keep up with a family of squirrels under an oak tree in October.
Since he took over the innovation portfolio in January 2021, at least 10 different companies have announced investments totaling US$15.7 billion in Canada to develop electric vehicles, the batteries that power them, or the minerals and materials used in them Batteries flow in to produce.
His persistence has seen him fly all over the world and taken the case for Canada to some of the world’s largest technology and automotive companies: Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Panasonic, Hitachi and Subaru to name a few.
Some, like Honda and Toyota, already have a manufacturing presence in Canada. Most don’t.
Champagne said Canada needs to be more aggressive in believing it can attract new businesses.
No one on his team can remember the last time Canada held senior-level talks with German automakers, he said. He first opened that door with the CEO of Volkswagen Canada Group, which oversees their dealership operations.
“Then the CEO of the Volkswagen Group, which produces around 30 million cars a day, was with me for two days and now we’re texting each other.”
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for a state visit in August, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz both signed agreements with Canada to explore partnerships in the electric vehicle supply chain.
“It’s quite amazing that in a few months (from) what was basically a very limited relationship, apart from the dealers in Canada, we went to the highest level where we signed with the German Chancellor, the Prime Minister of Canada, myself and have (Volkswagen Chairman) Herbert Diess.”
Champagne sold Canada’s electric vehicle industry in Germany in May, in Japan in July and in Detroit in September. In November, he has scheduled meetings in South Korea.
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A few weeks ago he flew to Fremont, California to tour the Tesla factory. Rumors of a Tesla expansion into Canada are rife and Champagne is coy, just saying to hang in there.
Evan Pivnick, program manager at Clean Energy Canada, said the country has come an incredible distance in building its electric vehicle and battery supply chain over the past year, and “Champagne and his team absolutely deserve credit.”
“I think from where we started the year, we’re well ahead of what most industry people would have predicted that we could achieve,” he said.
But Pivnick said there’s still a lot more work to be done if Canada wants to stay competitive to become an industry powerhouse.
His firm recently released an analysis saying that with announcements made over the past two years, the industry will support between 60,000 and 110,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2030 and contribute between $12 billion and $19 billion to the national economy.
Pivnick said if Canada “plays its cards right,” that can grow to 250,000 jobs and $48 billion in GDP.
That requires a comprehensive battery strategy that pushes Canada’s automakers to convert nearly all of their assembly capacity to electric car production, add new mines, and make massive investments in battery materials, cathode production, and recycling.
It will require rapid grid expansion to power everything with clean energy, as one of Canada’s biggest selling points abroad is clean energy abundance.
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Pivnick said it also needs a plan for the transition of the workforce – something the Liberals have been promising for years but have yet to deliver.
“We need to start working immediately on transitioning workers so that today’s autoworker is an electric vehicle assembly worker tomorrow,” he said.
“We need new battery material manufacturing skills to figure out how oil patchers can work in Alberta’s chemical industry. Like there are all sorts of really cool possibilities, but they’re not just going to happen.”
All Canadian car factories are in the midst of some degree of EV conversion, although none have promised full conversion. Several new and expanding mining projects are either underway or under discussion. At least four battery materials factories are in the works.
In March, LG Energy Solution and Stellantis announced a $5 billion investment to build Canada’s first Gigafactory, a term coined by Tesla to describe large-scale battery manufacturing plants.
Pivnick said Canada needs at least one more large gigafactory and two or three smaller ones by 2030. It also needs to boost domestic demand for electric vehicles and hope the United States can do the same.
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Most people think of southern Ontario when they think of Canada’s auto sector, but geographic expansion is underway. Two of the battery material factories under construction are located in Becancour, a small town of 12,000 people about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City.
In July, Belgium’s Umicore announced a US$1.5 billion investment to build a cathode materials manufacturing facility outside of Kingston, Ontario.
Mark Gerretsen, Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands, said the facility was huge for the region, which relies heavily on public sector jobs in health and education.
Champagne said the electric vehicle supply chain is a “golden opportunity” for Canada with “grievous consequences” for workers if we don’t seize the moment.
But after the success of the past two years, he said, the world has taken notice.
“I think the best is yet to come,” he said.
“My phone is ringing like never before.”