November 18, 2020

By Nathan Lemphers


The stories we tell ourselves matter. They script the villains and heroes. They (re-) interpret the past and envision the future. They inspire hope, despair, and ambivalence. They empower some, while ignoring or denigrating others. Beyond the content of the story, storytellers also matter. Do these raconteurs have power or are they marginalized? This orientation to power strongly impacts who will share these stories and absorb their lessons.

I studied one group of particularly powerful storytellers in Canada — incumbent economic sectors — and the stories they told about electric vehicles. Regardless of what happens in Canada, the global shift to electromobility is underway. Canadian policymakers and business leaders cannot stop this larger trend but they can be better prepared. The stories that are told about electric vehicles (EVs) can rally business and political leaders, as well as consumers, to resist or embrace this technology. Policy entrepreneurs can use these stories to reach out and create powerful coalitions to push for supportive policies and industrial change.

This research is important because it can help policymakers understand one aspect of why some regions have quickly become electromobility leaders while other regions have struggled to adopt and promote this technology. More practically, this analysis provides insights into how incumbent regional economic actors can change the stories they tell about electromobility to better capture the benefits from this potentially disruptive technology.

Using the innovative multidimensional discursive approach, developed by SPI Research Network members Daniel Rosenbloom and James Meadowcroft, I looked at the member publications for the Alberta-based Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), the Ontario-based Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association (APMA), and l’Association de l’industrie électrique du Québec (AIEQ) for mentions of electric vehicles from 2014-2020. 

Using this dataset, I asked the following questions. Do these industries talk about EVs? If so, how do these industries portray EVs when they are mentioned? What implications do these sectoral storylines have for a regional transition to electromobility?

In my latest SPI working paper, I present detailed answers to these questions. Briefly, the data reveals that these three industries are at different stages in grappling with electric vehicles. CAPP is late to the conversation and largely portrays electromobility as an ineffective means to reduce emissions. APMA is in the middle of a debate over the impact of electromobility on the auto industry and has no clear or dominant storyline. AIEQ, by contrast, is an early and unambiguous proponent of electromobility and sees this new technology as enhancing the competitiveness of Québec’s electricity sector.

The implications of this research are clear. When it comes to advancing electromobility, Québec is on track to thrive while there remains much more work to be done in Ontario and especially in Alberta. Despite the important announcements this fall by Ford and FCA that they will assemble a handful of electric vehicle models in Ontario, the province’s auto industry remains overwhelming tooled to produce fossil-fuelled vehicles. It currently assembles only one (plug-in hybrid) electric passenger vehicle. As the current pandemic underscores, Alberta’s petroleum industry is particularly vulnerable to global shifts in transportation fuel demand. Regardless of the status of electromobility in Canada, rapid adoption of EVs in the United States or China will have a major impact on the economies of Alberta and Ontario.

Powerful, credible storytellers in Ontario and Alberta need to start telling a different story. If, like in Québec, these raconteurs can tap into regionally-specific and pre-existing stories and reimagine the role of these dominant economic sectors as contributing to, rather than ignoring or opposing, a zero-emission transportation sector, then perhaps these new stories will help shift government policy and capital allocation to realize a more sustainable transportation system.


For a detailed analysis of Dr. Lemphers’ research on electromobility storylines, see his recently published Smart Prosperity Institute Working Paper

Nathan Lemphers

SPI Post-Doctoral Fellow