‘No Dash, no deal’: Aerospace workers spar with company owned by Canada’s richest family over future of Downsview plant

“Whose plant? Our plant!”

The chant echoed across the De Havilland aircraft manufacturer in Downsview on Monday, where dozens of workers gathered to protest the planned relocation of one of the company’s staple programs.

Since late July, workers at the decades-old plant have been on strike following a decision from their relatively new employer, Longview Aviation Capital, to move production of their signature Dash 8 aircraft elsewhere in Canada.

Longview, majority owned by Thomson family heir Sherry Brydson, owns De Havilland, the aerospace manufacturer that bought the Dash 8 program from Bombardier in 2018. Canada’s wealthiest family, the Thomsons, created Longview in 2016 to build a portfolio of long-term investments in the Canadian aerospace industry.

Longview’s move to leave its Downsview premises, and possibly Ontario altogether, comes as its lease is set to expire this year, capping 27 years of aircraft production at the facility. De Havilland announced months ago that it would halt production at Downsview, and neither the aerospace company nor the land owner has expressed interest in renewing the lease.

The company’s departure from Downsview will impact about 1,000 workers who manufacture aircraft for De Havilland, said Unifor national president Jerry Dias. The union suspects De Havilland wants to move production to its facilities in Alberta, though in a statement to the Star the company declined to say where it plans to move next.

“Downsview workers are responsible for the Dash 8 program’s success and have proudly built this iconic, made-in-Ontario aircraft for generations,” said Dias at Monday’s rally.

“This rally is about protecting aerospace jobs and keeping them where they belong, in Ontario.”

The future for the Downsview plant, located on a sprawling hunk of industrial land adjacent to North York’s Downsview Park, was cast into uncertainty in 2018 when transportation manufacturer Bombardier sold the space to the Public Sector Pension Investment Board for $635 million (U.S.). Bombardier later sold its Dash 8 manufacturing business to De Havilland and Longview for $300 million in 2019.

The highly valuable land, surrounded by three subway stops and a cluster of retailers to the south, has developers salivating at the prospect of residential and mixed-use projects being built in the area.

“If you took that land and zoned it as a residential space tomorrow, condos would be built in a year and the owners would get an amazingly quick return,” said Laura Taylor, a professor at York’s faculty of environmental studies.

Already, the Public Sector Pension has established Northcrest Developments to figure out how to use the approximately 200-hectare site. Late in June, the company announced it was partnering with a California-based entertainment company to build a new production studio on part of the land.

Aerospace workers at Downsview have called on the company to keep the manufacturer within the Greater Toronto Area after it leaves. But De Havilland and Longview have resisted those calls, leading negotiations between the union and the company to hit a roadblock in July.

“There’s no question that they want to move to Alberta. They have a facility there, they have capacity there, they’re reluctant at the bargaining table to commit to staying in Ontario,” said Dias. “To the workers who’ve been here for 20, 30 years, they’re basically saying, ‘Go screw yourselves.’ ”

In a statement to the Star, a spokesperson for De Havilland said the company “cannot and will not rush to a decision on future production location, nor negotiate a site plan in public.”

The company declined to comment on Monday’s rally.

Dias said he reached out to Brydson, granddaughter of the late newspaper magnate Roy Thomson and cousin of David Thomson, to negotiate the relocation of the aerospace plant but that she refused to meet.

“Clearly she has zero loyalty to the thousand families that she’s about to take away their economic livelihood. She should be ashamed of herself,” said Dias on Monday.

Longview did not respond to the Star’s request for comment from Brydson.