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Oshawa, Ont., General Motors plant ready for mass production of surgical masks

Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau announces deal with GM to produce 10 million masks
WATCH: (May 26) Speaking to reporters Tuesday outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a federal contract with General Motors (GM) to produce 10 million face masks and help employment in Oshawa, Ont.

Within just one month, General Motors is ready for mass production at its Oshawa plant.

“We went from putting our hand up, saying we can help, to being able to produce a million masks a month,” said David Paterson, VP of Corporate and Environmental Affairs for GM Canada.

It was officially announced Tuesday, May 26 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in his daily briefing.

The company has signed into a contract with the government to manufacture masks for the next 10 months. “This contract will produce good, well-paying jobs in an industry that has faced tough times,” said Trudeau in the briefing.

Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau announces deal with GM to produce 10 million masks
Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau announces deal with GM to produce 10 million masks

The car manufacturer vowed to step up to the challenge of making desperately needed PPE last month, saying they could easily retool a section of the plant to make the masks.

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When they got approved, they hit the ground running.

“We received our licence, we installed our equipment, we trained the people all in an absolutely record time,” says Paterson.

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They are doing it at cost and with a plan to manufacture one million surgical masks a month. Around 60 former GM employees were given union position jobs to help with the initiative, trained over the past week by employees from an American facility already making masks.

READ MORE: Union pushes province to enact legislation that would see GM’s Oshawa plant produce N95 masks

“The great news is that these are fantastic, skilled people. They’re very excited to be part of history here.”

This new job comes after thousands of workers were laid off last year when GM ceased mass-production of their vehicles at the Oshawa plant.

The move left people like Rebecca Keetch out of a job. The former employee, who has been advocating for more work in the facility since it shut down, says GM should also be focusing on other PPE.

“I was extremely disappointed that they are not going to be manufacturing the desperately needed N95 respirators,” said Keetch.

“There is a huge under-utilized, untapped resource,” she adds.

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“I think it is negligent of the government not to be demanding more here.”

Group advocates reopening GM plant in Oshawa for PPE
Group advocates reopening GM plant in Oshawa for PPE

GM has a massive property that spans approximately 10 million square feet, with just a small portion of the plant retooled for mask production.

Before the pandemic, Keetch had been pushing for the Canadian government to take over the plant by making it a green car-making factory. But so far the federal government hasn’t answered the request.

When it comes to making different medical equipment, Paterson says they were asked by Health Canada to make what was needed the most.

“There is 10 times the volume of need for the regular masks that we will need in Canada to protect others from us,” says Paterson.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Oshawa GM plant to make face masks

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But in the United States, General Motors has already started making an N95-style mask at a previously shut-down plant in Warren, Mich. Another also switched gears to manufacture ventilators.

Paterson says they don’t rule out making other products if the government asks, but they say it’s possible.

“We are looking at prototyping different types of mask technology in the United States right now,” Paterson said, “and if we can transport technology, we can take a look at that.”

The move is being applauded by Durham’s Regional Chair, John Henry. He hopes the contract will show a potential future for a plant for which some had lost all hope.

“The plant is huge. It’s still going to be a stamping plant and they are still painting parts there, but there’s tons of space and they can do a lot of other things there.”