Innovation Minister on track to make Canada a battery powerhouse and electric vehicle powerhouse

OTTAWA – When Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne takes to the microphone to talk about electrifying 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 thinking about Canada. »

His job, he says, is to change that.

“I never stop,” the 52-year-old former lawyer and business development strategist said in an interview. “You know me. I’m pretty persistent.

Champagne is a ball of energy, earning it the affectionate nickname “Franky Bubbles” among some Ottawa types. Interviews with him are like trying to track a family of squirrels under an oak tree in October.

Since taking over the Innovation portfolio in January 2021, at least 10 different companies have announced total investments of $15.7 billion in Canada to manufacture electric vehicles, the batteries that power them or the minerals and materials that go into these batteries.

His perseverance has taken him around the world, bringing Canada’s cause to some of the world’s biggest technology and automotive companies: Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Panasonic, Hitachi and Subaru, to name a few. name a few.

Some, like Honda and Toyota, already have a production presence in Canada. Most don’t.

Champagne said Canada needs to be more aggressive to believe it can attract new business.

No one on his team remembers the last time Canada had talks with German automakers at the senior management level, he said. He first opened that door with the CEO of Volkswagen Group Canada, which oversees its dealerships.

“Then we had the CEO of the Volkswagen Group, which produces around 30 million cars every day, who spent two days with me, and now we’re texting each other.”

In August, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hosted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for a state visit, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz both signed agreements with Canada to explore electric vehicle supply chain partnerships. .

“It’s quite amazing that in a matter of months we’ve gone from basically a very limited relationship outside of dealerships in Canada, to the highest level where we signed with the German Chancellor, the Prime Minister of Canada, myself and (Volkswagen Chairman) Herbert Diess.

Champagne was selling the Canadian electric vehicle industry in Germany in May, Japan in July and Detroit in September. In November, he has dates scheduled in South Korea.

A few weeks ago, he flew to Fremont, California to visit the Tesla factory. Rumors of a Tesla expansion into Canada are rife and Champagne is coy, saying only to stay tuned.

Evan Pivnick, program manager at Clean Energy Canada, said the country has come an incredible journey in building its electric vehicle and battery supply chain over the past year and that “Champagne and his team deserve absolutely to be congratulated”.

“I think where we started the year, we’re so far ahead of what most people in the industry would have predicted we were able to achieve,” he said.

But Pivnick said much more needs to be done if Canada is to remain in competition to become a powerhouse in the sector.

His firm recently released analysis indicating that with announcements made over the past two years, the industry will support between 60,000 and 110,000 direct and indirect jobs and contribute between $12 billion and $19 billion to the national economy. 2030.

Pivnick said if Canada “plays its cards right,” it can grow to 250,000 jobs and $48 billion in GDP.

This will require a comprehensive battery strategy, pushing Canadian automakers to convert nearly all of their assembly capacity to produce electric cars, add new mines and invest heavily in battery materials, production of cathodes and recycling.

It takes a rapid expansion of electricity supply to power everything with clean energy, given that one of Canada’s biggest selling points abroad is the abundance of clean energy.

Pivnick said it also requires a workforce transition plan — something the Liberals have been promising for years but have yet to deliver.

“We need to start working on worker transition now, so today’s auto worker is tomorrow’s electric vehicle assembly worker,” he said.

“We need new skills in manufacturing battery materials, to determine how oilfield workers can work in the chemical industry in Alberta. As if there are all kinds of really interesting opportunities, but they will not happen by chance.

All auto plants in Canada are in the midst of some level of retooling for electric vehicles, although none have promised a full conversion. Several new and expanding mining projects are underway or under discussion. At least four battery materials factories are under construction.

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 production factories.

Pivnick said Canada needs at least one giant big factory and two or three smaller ones by 2030. He also needs to increase domestic demand for electric vehicles and hopes the United States can do the same.

Most people think of southern Ontario when they think of the Canadian auto sector, but geographic expansion is underway. Two of the battery materials plants under construction are located in Bécancour, a small town of 12,000 inhabitants halfway between Montreal and Quebec.

In July, Belgian company Umicore announced a $1.5 billion investment to build a cathode materials production plant just outside Kingston, Ontario.

Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands, Mark Gerretsen, said the plant is huge for the region, which relies heavily on public service jobs in health and education.

Champagne said the electric vehicle supply chain is a “golden opportunity” for Canada with “disastrous consequences” for workers if we don’t seize the moment.

But after the success of the past two years, he said, the world took notice.

“For me, I think the best is yet to come,” he said.

“My phone is ringing like never before.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 16, 2022.

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