Oshawa: the GTA’s final frontier for development
“Relative to most other municipalities in the GTA, Oshawa has been independent — it’s had its own kind of economy,” says Elliot Siemiatycki, a PhD geography student at UBC, who wrote his masters thesis on UOIT’s impact on Oshawa’s development. “It hasn’t sought out or needed population and certainly until the last few years hadn’t sought out much attention of anything. There wasn’t a great need to attract people to Oshawa — and a great deal of people who worked there didn’t even live in the city.”
“Oshawa and Brampton are both auto towns — Oshawa with GM and Brampton with Chrysler,” says Dimitry Anastakis, a history professor at Trent University. “But Oshawa is far more of a one-horse town. There has been a lot more diversity in economy on the other side of the city.”
Beyond the city’s dependence on GM, Anastakis says there are a number of reasons why growth has never snowballed in Oshawa.
“Oshawa is kind of the far edge of the GTA. In some ways its more rural Ontario than it is part of the GTA … we can think about the GTA as one never ending expanse of development and driving from the downtown Toronto to Oakville it is in some ways. But driving from downtown Toronto to Oshawa you actually see some gaps, farmland and forest.”
“A place like Brampton is a lot more adjacent. That helps explain a lot of the growth — in the ’70s and ’80s, even in the ’60s, developers wanted to get stuff as close as possible to Toronto where there was a lot of virgin land they could develop.”
The transit infrastructure, from Highway 401 to GO Transit, has also been better in the west — something that is changing with the extension of Highway 407.
“The number of immigrants in those two jurisdictions is night and day,” he adds. Places like Brampton and Markham have grown rapidly because of chain migration, networks and immigrant community groups. “Where there is population growth in Canada, there is immigration. And that the fuels so much economic activity — new business, new people, new services.”
But the key to the growth on the west side of the GTA, says Anastakis, has been Pearson International Airport.
“In terms of all the economic activity that goes on around an airport — it’s a huge driver of economic growth. One of the reasons Brampton and Mississauga have grown so tremendously is because the air traffic has grown so tremendously.”
But as the west side of the GTA is grappling with the results of rapid growth, Oshawa is in the midst of a transformation from a city ravaged by the decline of the auto industry to a knowledge that revolves around universities.
Apart from UOIT and Durham College, Trent University has a campus in Oshawa, which is also partnering with the University of Windsor, says Mayor John Henry proudly. Lakeridge Heath is one of the biggest employers in the city.
“It’s a very different city from what it was 10 or 12 years ago,” says Cindy Symons-Milroy, director of economic development in Oshawa. The city’s automotive and nuclear research facilities are also expected to spur businesses to move to the city, she says.
“Developers are realizing that Oshawa has great potential for affordable housing. It’s easy to build here,” adds Henry. “Costco was built in 16 months on a brownfield.”
Meanwhile, Oshawa is on its way to becoming another commuter town.
“That’s just beginning though — a lot of the development in North Oshawa are bedroom communities like what’s been happening in Whitby, which has grown astronomically,” says Christine McLaughlin, a PhD candidate in history at York University. She is writing her thesis on Oshawa between 1950 and 1975.
Her concern is that the move toward a knowledge economy will hurt the blue-collar community that formed Oshawa’s backbone since its beginning.
“A lot of people in the community have been left behind by this progress. Those deep roots don’t just go away — these people are born and raised in Oshawa, deeply defined by its manufacturing industry. They are not just going to go out and become professors. So this is where … there is a transition back to precarious work for quite a few citizens while at the same time there are people enjoying the new high-paying secure jobs,” she says.
McCloskey — a passionate union activist and feminist — agrees.
“I feel bad about the jobs. We had some good paying jobs. We had a good middle-class. People now have the service jobs. They can’t live on that money. We’re going have to make sure we’re spreading that around.”
But she isn’t nostalgic for the Oshawa that was.
“It’s what happens, everything moves on.”