Sudbury: A Historical Case Study of Multiple Urban-Economic Transformation – by Oiva Saarinen (2 of 4)

Oiva Saarinen is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Geography at Laurentian University. He has published many articles on Sudbury’s past and is author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Historical Geography of the Finns in the Sudbury Area. This article was originally published in Ontario History/Volumn LXXXII, Number 1/March 1990.

A Regional Central-Place

After World War II Sudbury began to shed some of its colonial-frontier character and image, thanks initially to a significant expansion of the mining economy. This expansion, however, included neither the broadening of the mining economy to include new products nor the strengthening of forward or backward linkages; rather, the Sudbury area provided ample support for the contention that staple economies often lead to just more of the same. 26 

The extension of the staple economy into the post-war era could be attributed directly to the influence of the American “military-industrial complex,” for it was the American government, in response to the military needs of the Korean and Cold Wars, that deliberately set the stage for a mining boom in the Sudbury and Elliot Lake areas during the 1950s. This economic expansion in turn enabled the Sudbury Basin communities collectively to attain the critical population or a metropolis. A related event was the passing of the region’s remoteness and hinterland status in relation to other parts of Ontario and Canada.

The acquisition of these new population and geographical attributes supported the transition of the area towards a more mature, service-oriented economy, and by the late 1960s Sudbury had acquired some of the characteristics of a regional central-place. The community was also changing internally: land-use planning was introduced, and a white-collar class was emerging. Unfortunately, many aspects of the transition went unnoticed because of the inordinate attention given to the struggle between lnco and Local 598 during the 19505 and 1960s.

The explosive growth of the Sudbury Basin communities in the 1950s was a direct outcome of the decision by the United States government to encourage international competition for strategic minerals and to break up monopolies like Inco in order to contain communism and to promote global stability. 27  As a consequence of this policy the United States spent $789 million between 1950 and 1957 to diversify the non-communist supply of nickel and other metals through stockpiling and special purchase agreements.28 

Although both Inco and Falconbridge Nickel were parties to these arrangements, the latter proved to be the main beneficiary. By the end of the decade this enterprise had become a major producer and competitor to Inco as a result of an expansionary mining program in the northwestern part of the Basin. Sudbury likewise benefited economically from an agreement signed in 1954 between Eldorado Mining and Refining Ltd. and the United States government for the purchase of more than $1 billion worth of uranium ore from Elliot Lake from 1957 to 1962.29

The effect on Sudbury was immediate and profound. The city was transformed from a local distribution and residential centre to a rapidly growing city exhibiting metropolitan features. Both the labour force and the population grew rapidly; between 1951 and 1957 new jobs resulted in a net migration of some 27,000 persons into the Sudbury District.3o

Whereas in 1951 the population of the Sudbury Basin communities was only about 115,000, by 1961 and 1971 it had increased to 138,000 and 170,000 respectively) 31  By 1951 the City of Sudbury had a population density greater than that of any other Canadian settlement of the same size.32  Outside of Sudbury, the distribution of population was fundamentally reshaped. In the “Valley” numerous farms were subdivided in ad hoc fashion to accommodate the new demand for housing; urban sprawl also appeared to the west and south of Sudbury. The construction in 1956-59 of Elliot Lake, a resource community of 25,000 lying 160 kilometres (100 miles) west of Sudbury, brought new economic opportunities, particularly in retailing and wholesaling, to a larger geographical area.

Sudbury’s role as a regional central-place was assisted greatly by improvements in transportation and communication, especially opening of the Sudbury -Parry Sound -Gravenhurst stretch of road in 1952-56.33 This completion of Highway 69 to Toronto enabled Sudbury to serve as an alternative gateway into northern Ontario and set the stage for a battle with North Bay for urban supremacy in northeastern Ontario.34 Also important was the establishment of the Sudbury Airport and the introduction of regular flights by Trans Canada Airlines (TeA) between 1952 and 1954.

Sudbury’s sphere of influence was extended in 1953 when the city became the site of Canada’s first privately owned commercial television station, and by 1957 three radio stations were in existence.35 The geographical expansion of the Sudbury Star’s circulation market was another indicator of the city’s improving territorial and hierarchical position. As early as 1940 Sudbury began to replace Toronto’s newspaper dominance locally, and by the 1950s it was displacing Toronto’s previous control over Manitoulin Island. In fact, the city’s position in the provincial hierarchy gradually improved so much that by 1960, it was exceeded only by Toronto, London, Ottawa, Waterloo, Hamilton, and St. Catharines in the number of newspapers delivered.36

Medicine and education too helped extend the city’s sphere of influence. The construction of three hospitals between 1950 and 1956 made Sudbury the undisputed medical centre for northeastern Ontario, and by the late 1960s, eminent surgeons led by Dr. Paul Field had brought the city to national prominence in the field of heart surgery. The creation of Laurentian University in 1960 and Cambrian College of Arts and Technology in 1966 brought the community into Ontario’s web of post-secondary institutions (see Figure 6).37 By the beginning of the 1970s, therefore, the foundations for Sudbury as a central-place had been laid.

The economic transformation wrought numerous sociological changes in Sudbury. Planning was grudgingly accepted as a development tool, and the laissez-faire attitude of the pre-war era slowly faded. The first land use planner was hired by the city in 1955, and by 1959 an official plan had been formally approved. Other planning measures included the formation of the Sudbury and District Health Unit in 1956, the Junction Creek and Whitson Valley Conservation Authorities in 1958 and 1959, and the Sudbury and District Industrial Commission in 1957.38 Planning proved to be a boon. Under the direction of K. Dembek, one of Canada’s most successful urban renewal programs transformed the downtown and fulfilled the long-felt need for a more functional and attractive downtown. Other achievements included improvements to the city’s roads, the elimination of flooding, and the provision of water mains and sewers to the suburbs.

Meanwhile, the broadening of the economic base to include tertiary employment brought to the city for the first time the influence of both white-collar workers and women. Interest in the theatre grew, and steps were taken to form a symphony orchestra. In 1951 male dominance in local politics was challenged when Dr. Faustina Cook and Grace Hartman won aldermanic seats, and in 1967, Hartman became Sudbury’s first woman mayor.39

The steady improvement in the city’s physical and socio-cultural amenities in the post-war era, however, was not fully appreciated at the time because of the overriding attention given to the struggle between Inco and Local 598. A long strike at Inco in 1958 split the community and inspired descriptions of the Sudbury area as a “hotbed of unionism and communism.” 40  The attention of the media was again drawn to Sudbury in 1961, when the United Steelworkers of America began an aggressive campaign to replace Mine Mill as the bargaining agent for the Inco workers.

Nevertheless, it is clear that by the beginning of the 1970s Sudbury had in fact become a markedly different city from the one that had emerged from World War II. While natural resources were still the cornerstone of the local economy, new central-place functions had come into being.

See Part 3 of 4 – A Declining Metropolis