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TODAY:

  • The proposed Fiat Chrysler-Renault merger underlines how much difficulty the auto sector finds itself in as it tries to cope with trade wars, slumping sales, and changing consumer tastes.
  • A dance program called Outside Looking In is making a big difference in the lives of a group of dedicated high-school students.
  • Toronto has lost a tireless harm-reduction advocate who provided an inside look at the overdose crisis.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Auto sector blues

Fiat Chrysler wants to merge with France’s Renault, a deal that would create the world’s third-largest automaker behind Volkswagen and Toyota if approved.

But it’s more of a shotgun wedding than a fairy-tale romance.

Fiat Chrysler, which was itself created by a 2014 takeover, is coming off a dismal first quarter, with the number of vehicles shipped down 14 per cent from the year before, and profit falling by 47 per cent.

Fiat Chrysler’s first-quarter vehicle shipments were down 14 per cent from the previous year. (Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images)

Renault’s net profits plunged by 37 per cent last year as the company’s hopes of a formal merger with Japan’s Nissan fell apart in the wake of financial misconduct charges against Carlos Ghosn, the French executive who had been running both the firms.

The newly proposed Fiat Chrysler-Renault merger might well make sense — the two companies could save billions in research, purchasing and production costs, and gain strength in markets where they have been struggling on their own.

What it really underlines, however, is how much difficulty the auto sector finds itself in as it tries to cope with trade wars, slumping sales and changing consumer tastes.

Globally, light vehicle sales fell just half a per cent in 2018, but that was the first drop since the 2009 financial meltdown, and a harbinger of what looks to be an even worse 2019.

Auto sales in Canada were down 3.5 per cent in April from the year before, the 14th straight month of declines.

Overall sales in the United States were down about the same, although certain brands fared much worse, with Mazda reporting a 14 per cent drop, Fiat Chrysler down by 6 per cent and Toyota 4.4 per cent.

Renault cars are seen during the opening day of the Brussels Motor Show in January. The company’s net profit fell 37 per cent last year. (Dirk Waem/AFP/Getty Images)

The much bigger worry is China, the world’s largest market, where sales fell almost 15 per cent last month, suggesting the 2.8 per cent overall drop in 2018 was just the beginning.

And India, another huge emerging car market, saw a 15.9 per cent reduction in April, the 10th straight month in which auto sales have declined.

Cars have been getting more expensive for a while as automakers cut back on incentives,  but if Donald Trump follows through on his threat to impose a 25 per cent tariff on autos and parts from Europe and Asia, prices will only go higher. The major car makers predict an average hike of $2,750 US per domestically made vehicle — and as much as $6,000 for each import.

Auto companies have already begun to shed workers as they try to deal with the sales slump and brace for an unpredictable future.

Ford, which is in the midst of an $11 billion US restructuring, announced last week that it will trim 7,000 people from its global workforce.

Bloomberg tallied up all the recent announced cuts — including 2,300 GM jobs in Oshawa, Ont. — and found that the major automakers have tossed 38,000 people over the past six months.

General Motors laid off 2,300 workers at its car assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont., citing a global reorganization that will see the company focus on its electric and autonomous vehicle programs. (Eduardo Lima/Canadian Press)

It’s a worldwide problem.

Daimler, which announced 10,000 layoffs last month, is getting ready for another major shakeup as it tries to reduce costs by 20 per cent.

Toyota, Honda and Nissan are all forecasting lower sales and profits as they try to shift their focus to electric vehicles and autonomous cars.

And even the cutting-edge firms are struggling. Tesla Motors laid off more than 1,000 employees from its California plant in January, as it tries to deal with longstanding production issues and slowing sales.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveils the Model Y on March 14 at Tesla’s design studio in Hawthorne, Calif. The company is seeking new sources of funding. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

Elon Musk’s company reported a $702 million loss in the first quarter, and then announced plans to seek more cash by issuing $650 million in new shares and take on an additional $1.35 billion in debt.

At the current spend rate, those funds will last Tesla 10 months.

So far this year, Tesla stock has shed more than 35 per cent of its value, now trading at around $190 US — although Musk isn’t really hurting. He’s still worth an estimated $18.1 billion US, making him the 40th richest billionaire in the world.


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It’s more than just dance

A dance program called Outside Looking In is making a big difference in the lives of a group of dedicated high-school students, producer Sharon Wu writes.

No cellphones, no pop or chips, no staying up late or sleeping in … just six to eight hours of practice each day for 14 straight days. It’s a relentless last effort to prepare for the final stop — the country’s biggest theatre stage at Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.

Dance is what brought 114 kids here from 13 First Nation reserves across Ontario, Manitoba and Nunavut. They travelled long distances to a remote farm 100 kilometres west of Toronto to get sweaty in this barn studio.

Some of the members of Outside Looking In rehearse in a barn studio outside Toronto to prepare for their Sony Centre show. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

“Everybody here is hungry,” says choreographer Nino Vicente — hungry to achieve something big, something that makes them feel good about themselves.

Solomon Harper is one of them. “I was kind of a slacker,” he smirked.

That was four years ago … now the 16-year-old from St. Theresa Point First Nation, a fly-in community in northern Manitoba, has an average grade above 80. His favourite subject is math.

Solomon Harper is in his fourth year performing with Outside Looking In. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

Another dancer, 18-year-old Rayna Fontaine, is from Garden Hill, an isolated reserve in Northeast Manitoba.

“Growing up, I used to be picked on as a kid because of how my teeth looked,” she says.

Fontaine admits she suffered depression, but is now no longer scared of what “weird things” other people might say about her — a confidence she says she found on the dance floor.

Rayna Fontaine says she has found new confidence dancing with Outside Looking In. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

They’ve both been part of Outside Looking In (OLI) for four years, a non-profit program dedicated to empowering Indigenous youth through school-credit dance classes. Everyone is welcome, but those who want to stay on must maintain an average of 60 per cent or better in school, and show that they’re both a well-mannered kid and a good dancer.  

Over the past 12 years, those who completed the OLI program have a high school graduation rate of 96 per cent, almost three times the national average for Indigenous high school students.

All the hard work paid off for the dancers we spoke to at the barn studio near Toronto. Solomon, Rayna and their group took the centre stage at the Sony Centre last week and charmed an audience of nearly 3,000 with their sassy hip hop dance moves. The show lasted for two hours, and ended in hugs and tears.

Solomon Harper onstage during Outside Looking In’s dress rehearsal at the Sony Centre. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

“At that moment I was really proud of myself that I did a HELL of good job,” says Solomon.

Watch the story we’re calling “It’s More Than Just Dance” tonight on The National.

– Sharon Wu


Leon ‘Pops’ Alward

Senior producer Adam Miller reflects on the death of a tireless harm-reduction advocate who provided an inside look at the overdose crisis.

We arrived at Toronto’s Moss Park overdose prevention site on a dreary night in November, not knowing what to expect.

CBC News reporter Nicole Ireland, photographer Evan Mitsui and I were there for a story about startling new data we’d received showing a 2,000 per cent increase in the number of street drugs testing positive for fentanyl across Canada from 2012 to 2017.

We were soon connected with Leon Alward, better known as “Pops” to the community there, who was both upfront and honest about his heroin and fentanyl use, and generous with his time.

Leon ‘Pops’ Alward, at Toronto’s Moss Park overdose prevention site in November 2018. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Pops volunteered with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society’s Moss Park site since its inception in August 2017, helping to reduce and reverse overdoses. He was also an advocate for those who couldn’t be saved.

He also openly referred to himself as a “junkie,” because in his words: “I don’t like to pretty it up.”

Although we only spent a short time with him, Pops showed us around the site and introduced us to people who relied on it. He also gave us the stories behind the park’s memorials to users who had lost their battle with addiction – some before the site had officially opened.

The street drug data we had unearthed came as no surprise to Pops. By the time we spoke to him, the harm-reduction workers at the site had watched over almost 2,000 injections and stopped or reversed about 85 overdoses. The site has since grown from tents, to a full brick-and-mortar operation.

There were 308 opioid overdose deaths in Toronto that year, according to Toronto Public Health, and while the full picture for 2018 has not yet been revealed, preliminary data shows there were 193 deaths in Toronto in the first nine months. This year so far, data released by the Toronto Paramedic Services shows 127 suspected opioid overdose calls that resulted in fatalities.

Pops is counted among them. He died of an overdose May 25 in Toronto.

When we spoke with him in 2017, he asked if he could use heroin in our presence – giving us a firsthand look at the realities of the issue. We agreed, and what transpired was both incredibly moving and eye opening, but also raw and real.

“The thought of the sickness that I know is going to come if I don’t use far outweighs the risk of using,” he said. “It sounds ridiculous, I know that, I understand that. But for an IV user, nobody knows what it’s like.”

While he didn’t survive his addiction, he was candid about the realities of being a user, and his memory lives on in the community he made such a difference in.

“Every time we use, we’re taking our lives into our hands,” he said. “What we’re looking at is people’s lives. That’s me.”

– Adam Miller

Watch The National’s inside look at the Moss Park overdose prevention site:

In the first half of 2018 at least 2,000 people died of overdoses across the country, a slight increase over last year. Amid all that death, Moss Park Overdose Prevention Site in Toronto is a place of life. The National got inside the site to see how it works, and what it means to the people who use it. 8:14

A few words on … 

Joy.


Quote of the moment

“With a single route to the summit, delays caused by overcrowding could prove fatal. I am hopeful my decision to go for the 25th will mean fewer people.”

– British mountaineer Robin Hayes Fisher  shares his worries on Instagram before he tried to summit Everest. On Saturday, he died of altitude sickness at 8,600 metres, one of nine fatalities on the mountain this climbing season.


What The National is reading

  • Computer science student, 2 others arrested in Lyon, France bomb blast (CBC)
  • Europe’s biggest blocs lose grip on parliament (BBC)
  • Babe in arms, mom jumps from second storey to escape raging Altberta fire (CBC)
  • Netanyahu threatens to call fresh election as coalition talks falter (Guardian)
  • Ireland votes to make divorce easier (Quartz)
  • More than 40 per cent of India’s new MPs are facing criminal charges (Asia Times)
  • Four Russian journalists stabbed over refusal to publish Stalin article (Moscow Times)

Today in history

May 27, 1959: Where will they go? Inside an Austrian refugee camp

Fourteen years after the end of the Second World War, refugees still crowd the Kapfenberg displaced persons camp in Austria. Many are trapped there, in grim living conditions, due to health issues that disqualify them from resettling abroad. “Why have we permitted this? Why are broken people forced into one indignity after another?,” CBC’s Close-Up asks. “The answer is simple. Money.”

Fourteen years after the Second World War ended, refugees displaced by the conflict are still living in temporary housing in Kapfenberg. Directed by Allan King. 8:00

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