Sudbury: A Historical Case Study of Multiple Urban-Economic Transformation – by Oiva Saarinen (3 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 Declining Metropolis

The post-war transformation of Sudbury was abruptly halted in the 1970s by problems both urban and economic which threatened the future viability of the city and the Sudbury Basin. Headlines shouted that Sudbury had “hit bottom” and was “struggling to stay alive.” 41  By the early 1970s, it had become evident that a political restructuring was needed to meet the region’s growing need for water, sewage disposal, transportation, and planning. The inability of local municipalities to deal with these issues can be attributed partly to the urban sprawl that had begun as far back as the 1950s, extreme parochialism, and the weakness of the tax base outside the company towns. Attempts by the city to rectify the situation were continuously thwarted by the province until 1960, when Sudbury was allowed to absorb the large population which had settled on its periphery. 42

The change in municipal boundaries, however, did little to solve regional problems or the inequities in the sharing of mining assessment between the province and the municipalities. Sudbury’s continued growth in the 1960s caused considerable financial stress, and, as one observer remarked, public funds were used to make the city only “fit to live in” rather than a “pleasant place to live in.”43 Municipal studies were undertaken which claimed that city residents paid one-fifth more taxes than the average Ontario urban resident while at the same time receiving fewer services.44

This unsatisfactory state of affairs continued until 1968, when the province unveiled its Design for Development program. As part of this program, the Sudbury Area Study (Kennedy Report), which was released in 1970, recommended the establishment of a regional government.45  A period of intense local debate ensued. The province eventually intervened with Bill 164, which created the Regional Municipality of Sudbury on January I, 1973 (see Figure 7), 46  Although this event was a milestone in the political and planning development of the Sudbury area, it also brought with it a decade of such intense internal dissension about services and planning that it was five years before the regional official plan could be passed.47 

Regional government too came under criticism for its unbalanced representation which favoured the outlying communities rather than Sudbury, the cost of the new bureaucracy, and the continuation of high municipal taxes.48 On the other hand, the persuasive leadership of various regional chairmen such as Doug Frith, George Lund, Delki Dozzi and Tom Davies did eventually bring about a stronger measure of political support for the concept of regional government.

The second reason for the turbulence of the 1970s was the drastic decline in the global demand for mineral products and the consequent reduction in Sudbury’s employment. The origins of this decline can be traced back to the 1960s, when Inco and Falconbridge Nickel lost their positions as the world price leaders for nickel. Whereas in 1950 only four countries in the world produced nickel, by the beginning of the 1980s there were twenty-six producers, many of them in Third World countries with low wages and minimal environmental regulations.49  By 1982 the Sudbury Basin accounted for only slightly more than 10 per cent of the world’s nickel production.50  It had become evident to all that the glory days of the mining era had come to an irrevocable end.

The effect of this unsettled economic environment on the Sudbury area was traumatic. In 1971 the Regional Municipality of Sudbury (using its 1973 boundaries) had a population of 170,000; by 1976 this figure had dropped to 167,000 and by 1981 to 159,000. The Sudbury Census Metropolitan Area had the distinction of being one of the only two metropolitan areas in Canada to lose population between 1971 and 1981.51 The population decline was paralleled by a reduction of jobs at Inco and Falconbridge Nickel by more than 7,900 -from a high in 1971 of 25,600 to a low of 17,700 in 1981 (and eventually down to 10,000 by 1988). It was within this troubled framework that a growing awareness developed of the need to give Sudbury a more solid economic base.

See Part 4 of 4 – Towards a Self-Reliant Community