Canada: a spark for the batteries and electric vehicles industry

panelists at Toronto Global Forum 2021

Canada’s potential to become the world leader in the batteries and electric vehicle (EV) industry is creating palpable excitement among decision makers in the global economy. And for good reasons—it is the only country in the western hemisphere with all the critical minerals needed to build an end-to-end battery supply chain.   

At this year’s Toronto Global Forum, Invest in Canada brought together leaders in Canada’s EV industry to discuss the challenges and opportunities Canada faces as it leads the electrification of the transportation sector. Presented by Invest in Canada, the panel featured Emmanuelle Toussaint, Vice-President, Legal, Regulatory & Public Affairs and External Communications, Volvo Group; Paul Soubry, Chief Executive Officer, New Flyer Industries; Frederick Morency, Vice-President, Services, Schneider Electric Canada; and David Paterson, Vice President, Corporate and Environmental Affairs, General Motors of Canada Company. Nino Di Cara, Founder and President, Electric Autonomy Canada, served as the moderator. 

As the panelists outlined their views on this opportunity for our country, they made it clear that Canada is uniquely positioned to grow into a world-leading battery and electric vehicle hub. On top of a storied automotive industry, it is also endowed with rich deposits of over 60 minerals and metals, including the key minerals required for battery production, namely lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and manganese.  

The ecosystem makes the difference for EVs and batteries 

But geography can only take an industry so far. Mr. Morency of Schneider Electric Canada, a global specialist in energy management and automation, noted Canada’s vast and interconnected electricity grid, its strong in-country supply chain and its world-leading expertise. “It’s the ecosystem that makes the difference,” explained Mr. Morency.  

In today’s competitive markets, countries need more than physical assets and natural resources to stand out. Fortunately, the panelists, all of whom hail from different parts of the value chain, were quick to praise Canada’s highly skilled workforce, the legacy of a world-class education system that has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to changing market expectations. When asked why his company maintained significant operations in Canada—including its headquarters in Winnipeg—New Flyer CEO Paul Soubry pointed to Canada’s unparalleled workforce: “We’re really fortunate to have the expertise, the skill set—hardware, software, design—all of these things that are available in Canada. We do all the brainy stuff in Canada.”  

Change will only continue to accelerate in the transportation industry. Already, Ms. Toussaint explained, Volvo Group has launched a new entity—Volvo Energy—dedicated to speeding up vehicle electrification, with a focus on battery life cycle and EV infrastructure. Mr. Soubry predicts that by 2040, none of the combustion engine transit buses his company currently produces will be left on the road.  

A world of opportunities for workers and investors in Canada 

Panelists also illustrated how developments in the EV industry stand to create new opportunities for workers. From drivers and mechanics to software developers and transit engineers, retraining the workforce will require significant effort and cooperation among private investors, educational institutions, and governments.  

On top of upskilling Canada’s workforce, massive investments will be needed to guarantee a stable energy supply, build a vast network of charging stations, and increase the size of Canada’s EV market. The task at hand may seem daunting. But the forces of government, business and civil society are aligned on that one objective. 

Canada benefits from access to the world’s most lucrative automotive market. As Mr. Paterson of GM Canada notes, “When you come and invest in Canada, as part of that North American market, you have the richest, biggest market in the world.” GM—which has been present in Canada since the days of the horse-drawn buggy—is particularly well placed to assess trends in the North American market. The company exports roughly 90% of the vehicles it manufactures in Canada, buying over $3 billion in Canadian-made parts and supplies in the process. With these kinds of numbers, it’s easy to understand why investors and businesses are racing to get in on the ground floor as Canada’s EV ecosystem grows.  

And as for passenger vehicles, Mr. Paterson says, “the holy grail of the auto sector for electrification is to take a battery, cut the cost in half, and double the range. You do that, you win—you get a lot of customers, and everyone is going to be happy.”  

In Canada, that quest has already begun.