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

Towards a Self-Reliant Community

In 1984 Sudbury was chosen by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Government of Canada, and the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs as an international case study of a declining metropolis that had made a successful urban-economic adjustment after a period of decline. The study confirmed that the Sudbury region had overcome many of the obstacles it had inherited from the 1970s and was on the path towards a more sustainable future.52  The report, however, dealt largely with events that had taken place during the previous decade and devoted considerable attention to political factors. This paper asserts that other long-and short-term factors need to be emphasized as well if the basis for this transitional phase is to be more fully appreciated. In fact, many of the fundamental preconditions for this rapid adjustment from decline towards revitalization and sustainability already existed as far back as the 1950s.

For example, after 1951 the size of the region’s population was unique among Canadian resource-based economies. The foundations for the City of Sudbury as a central-place, already well established during the 1950s and 1960s, were strengthened considerably in the ensuing decade. The post-war birth of a white-collar class and its growing influence stimulated fundamental changes to the economic, political, and socio-cultural order. These three long-term preconditions were complemented by four more recent impulses: creative political leadership at the local and regional levels, financial assistance from the two senior levels of government, increases in productivity by Inco and Falconbridge, and finally, the creation of forward and backward linkages within the mining industry.

In the dynamics of the current metamorphosis phase, community size has been of paramount importance. According to the 1986 census, the Regional Municipality of Sudbury supported a population of more than 152,000. While this figure does not approach the 250,000 often proposed as the minimum for community sustainability, it nevertheless acted as a brake to slow down the decline. The fact that Sudbury was a declining metropolis gave it considerable influence with the provincial and federal governments. Arguing that “no nation is so affluent that it can afford to throwaway a major city,” Sudbury used this political leverage to its fullest advantage. 53

At the federal level representations were made for special assistance by James Jerome (Speaker of the House of Commons), Doug Frith, Judy Erola (Minister of State for Mines with responsibility for the Status of Women), and John Rodriguez. Similar pleas were made to the provincial government by Bud Germa, Floyd Loughren, Elie Martel, and Jim Gordon. In addition, the population was large enough for import substitution in food processing, printing and design, sportswear manufacturing, and restaurant franchising. 54

The fact that the population included a sizeable number of retired people was also significant. Since more than 90 per cent of the former employees of Inco and Falconbridge Nickel chose to remain in the region, their numbers came to equal the size of the mining labour force. And since many of them had fairly high incomes, they helped the process of revitalization and contributed significantly to the renovation of houses now apparent in some neighbourhoods. As a result of this retirement phenomenon. the population of the Sudbury area had one of the highest rates of urban “aging” in Canada between 1971 and 1981. 55
The second long-term influence is the growing importance of Sudbury as a central-place in northeastern Ontario. The contemporary manifestation of this change can be linked to the change in Sudbury’s status from that of a regional to a sub-provincial central-place and the rise of urban functions as the main driving force in the economy. 56  Sudbury’s enlarged sphere of influence, underlain by improvements in transportation and communication in the 1950s and again in the 1970s, resulted in the city’s becoming a dominant force in financial services and wholesaling and distributional facilities for all of northeastern Ontario.

The spread of Sudbury’s influence into places formerly dominated by North Bay was made possible by the opening of Highway 144 to Timmins in 1970 and its subsequent extension to the Smooth Rock Falls -Cochrane district via Highway 655. 57  At the same time the transportation network in and around the area was improved by the construction of bypasses and ring roads. These changes were paralleled by improvements in air transportation. Until the 1970s, Sudbury served essentially as the nodal point for a north-south air corridor joining Timmins with Toronto; but the arrival of jet service and the introduction of Norontair flights in 1971 made the community a growing focal point for air traffic for all of northeastern Ontario.

After a modern air terminal was built in 1974, a new, east-west air network gave Sudbury direct flights to Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montreal. Similar advances occurred in communications. 58  In 1972 Bell Canada moved its district office from North Bay to Sudbury, and in 1979 Sudbury was designated as Bell’s regional headquarters for the territory from Peterborough in the south to Thunder Bay and Hudson Bay in the north. 59  By this time, Sudbury was established as the northeastern Ontario headquarters for CBC radio broadcasting in both English and French. In publishing, Sudbury’s position was enhanced by the formation of Laurentian Publishing by a local entrepreneur, Michael Atkins, in 1973. Atkins now owns twenty-five community newspapers and three business tabloids in Ontario and New Brunswick; they include the monthly Northern Ontario Business. 60

These developments in transportation and communication fostered the growth of tertiary employment. Sudbury’s rise as a regional financial centre became evident in the 1970s  with the widespread establishment of regional bank headquarters, trust and loan companies, investment dealers, credit unions, and the Federal Business Development Bank in the downtown. A wide variety of wholesaling and distributional enterprises were similarly attracted to the serviced industrial parks created in the 19708. By 1981 the cumulative effect of these changes was such that Sudbury was considered as a “service-administrative” centre.61  Figure 8 shows that the relative importance of tertiary employment to the city by this year exceeded the average for Canada and Ontario.

The third element was the rise of the white-collar sector as the dominant influence on the urban mentality and internal power base and the parallel rise of what geographers have referred to as a “sense of place.”62 This white-collar sector gradually transformed Sudbury’s socio-cultural, political, and economic environment.63 The demand for higher quality in culture and recreation resulted in a number of distinctive achievements. Sudbury acquired what the Ontario Arts Council regards as the best volunteer symphony in Ontario. Another significant development was the formation of the Sudbury Theatre Centre, which has had more subscribers per capita than any other theatre in Canada.64 The Grand Theatre -rebuilt on its original site -began to attract world-renowned entertainers. More recently, the city has adopted a leisure and recreational plan developed by citizens, reflecting the “aging” and “white-collar” aspects of the population.65
Political life was also reshaped by the changed population. Beginning in the early 1970s, populists began to be defeated by more professional candidates,66 and white-collar interests began to affect the city’s decisions in issues such as building heights, spaces, and portable signs.67

Perhaps the most noteworthy example of the new outlook was the creation of Sudbury 2001. In 1977 a number of citizens, led by the planner Narasim Katary and the businessman Michael Atkins, began to meet informally with representatives of the business, academic, mining, and union sectors to discuss ways of alleviating the effects of mining layoffs in the area; the result was the formation of the Sudbury Committee, which, in 1978, held a conference on economic development involving the entire community under the name of Sudbury 2001 in 1978.68
A formal organization was then established with the goal of making the Sudbury region a self-sustaining metropolis by the, turn of the century. Assisted by venture capital provided by the provincial government, Sudbury 2001 set out to initiate new business ventures, support the expansion of existing businesses, foster innovative community projects, and make long-term strategic plans based on sustainability. The organization eventually foundered, however, as a result of a discredited economic project which left it with a reputation for impracticality and mismanagement, and in 1987 it was officially disbanded.69 Nevertheless, in historical terms 2001 was remarkable, for it had heralded the transition from the old-fashioned type of purely reactive planning to one that looked ahead; equally important, it reflected a new attitude toward Sudbury as a permanent home for its residents.

 It started the process of discarding the tradition of confrontation and divisiveness in favour of co-operation and community consensus. Though the short-term physical accomplishments of the body were few, its longer-term influence has been substantial. It raised the level of planning consciousness to heights hitherto thought impossible. This strategic approach to urban-economic development eventually bore fruit, as events in the 1980s later demonstrated. One authority regards 200I as one of the most important innovations of its kind, and one deserving serious consideration by other communities that are under stress.70

The fourth influence on the transitional phase was the political and planning creativity associated with the Regional Municipality of Sudbury. In fact, the very formation of the regional municipality in 1973 was a catalyst for the development of the Civic Square complex that provided offices for the Province of Ontario, the Regional Municipality of Sudbury, the City of Sudbury, and Bell Canada (see Figure 9). Despite a shaky start in the middle 1970s, the regional municipality managed to take a series of actions promoting environmental improvement, regional economic development, fiscal responsibility, and job creation.

One of the first steps was to implement a strategy for improving the physical environment. This decision was dictated in part by the choice by the United States government of the Sudbury area as a site for its Apollo training missions in 1969-70 and the resulting resurrection of the “lunar landscape” image by the international media.7I  The timing of the Region’s ecological initiative was fortuitous. The recent closure of Inco’s smelter at Coniston and Falconbridge Nickel’s pyrrhotite plant and the completion in 1972 of Inco’s “Superstack” had already set the stage for a greatly improved air quality and more favourable conditions for natural regeneration of vegetation.

A formal planning approach to environmental improvement began in 1973 with the formation of the Technical Tree Planting Committee.72  Spurred on by high student unemployment and the passage of an environmentally sensitive official plan, the committee began one of the world’s largest community land-reclamation projects in 1978. Under the Regional Land Rehabilitation Program, steps were taken to revegetate the barren lands along the main highway, using student labour. In 1982 the project was expanded to include short-term jobs for laid-off miners. By the end of 1984, 2,636 hectares of barren area were reclaimed, 980 hectares of damaged area visually improved, and 387,580 trees planted. The total cost of the program throughout this period was $12,320,500.73  The results have been spectacular. In 1984 the Hamilton Spectator was moved to comment that “birch trees, lakes and grass sprouting out of once black hills -now form a beautiful backdrop to the city.” 74

Another innovative action taken by the regional municipality was the establishment in 1974 of the Sudbury Regional Development Corporation (SRDC) as an autonomous body made up of representatives from the business and industrial community, accountable to council, but with its own staff and budget. 75 Sudbury thus became one of the first municipalities in Ontario to recognize the need for a specialized co-ordinating agency to promote economic development.

In addition to offering advice, guidance, and practical help to existing businesses and potential entrepreneurs, the SRDC, under the firm leadership of Spike Hennessey, became active in transforming Sudbury’s image. The efforts of the SRDC were assisted by the regional official plan, which stated the intention to attract new industry, develop suitable sites, identify suitable industries, and promote incentive programs. These policies were later adopted by the City of Sudbury in a creative economic planning statement that serves as an addendum to the city’s 1987 official land-use plan. 76

In an attempt to promote fiscal responsibility, the regional official plan adopted special policies to limit urban sprawl by designating specific growth centres. And during the early 1980s the regional council decided to undertake major capital projects essentially on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. These policies were deemed necessary because of the high debt load assumed by the regional municipality and the reduction in tax revenues resulting from the mining layoffs. Through these measures the proportion of taxes used to reduce the regional debt fell steadily during the 1980s; by 1988 no new debentures were being permitted at the regional level. The policies have been extended to include capital lot levies and a greater application of the “user-pay” principle.77  In the city, fiscal efficiency has been encouraged by promoting residential infilling, rehabilitation of existing buildings, and a larger residential component in the downtown. A complementary downtown strategy is being envisaged which intends to bring about a more attractive and functional setting through projects involving private-public entrepreneurial agreements.78

Political leadership likewise appeared in the form of eight sectoral task forces on mining, government, business, industry, finance, health, agriculture, and education and training. In addition, the Short-Term Job Creation Task Force was created by the regional municipality, and an idea bank was established by the SRDC. These efforts culminated in thirty-eight proposals that were sent to the two senior levels of government after close liaison with government officials. The projects that were related to health and short-term job creation proved to be the most fruitful. The success of the former can be attributed to a previous tradition of co-operation among the local hospitals dating back to the 1970s. The latter managed to use existing programs to obtain nearly sixteen weeks of paid work for some 4,600 persons; it also generated more than $31 million for the local economy. Though the short-term employment projects did little to diversify the economy, they succeeded in cushioning the financial and psychological effects of the layoffs.

Equally important, the interim jobs enabled many workers to remain eligible for unemployment insurance. As a backup to the economic measures, the regional municipality formed a Help Committee to ensure that social services were provided to those who needed them most. When the mandate of these task forces came to an end, it was felt that Sudbury still lacked one of the keys to long-term economic diversification, namely a pool of creative entrepreneurship. It was to this end that the Sudbury Community Adjustment Project (SCAP) was formed in 1986. Conceived locally as a joint-action pilot project involving both the government and private sectors, SCAP was funded by the governments of Canada and Ontario and by Inco and Falconbridge. It evolved, however, as a private-sector, non-profit corporation with a mandate to develop innovative labour-adjustment and economic-development programs in the Sudbury area; in many respects, it could be regarded as a philosophical offshoot of Sudbury 2001. Considered the only entity of its kind in Canada, SCAP was created with a three-year mandate that extended to 1989.79 Since its inception this body has been instrumental in creating more than seven hundred jobs.

A fifth aspect of the recovery phase was the physical investment made by the two senior levels of government towards diversifying the economy and creating permanent jobs. These investments were part of a national and provincial trend to decentralize the civil service. After the 2001 Conference of 1978, the Government of Ontario erected a new provincial building in the downtown Civic Square complex; and in 1984 it opened Science North, a tourist attraction whose outstanding architecture has helped to create a new community image (see Figure 10). The facility has also served as a stimulus for the hospitality industry. And more recently, other steps towards decentralization taken by the province bode well for the future sustainability of the region, for they will bring some 750 tertiary jobs to Sudbury.80

Not to be outdone, the Government of Canada in 1982 aided the local economy by building the Sudbury Taxation Centre, which provides 625 full-time and 1,500 part-time jobs. This relocation did much to lessen the long-standing problem of unemployment and underemployment among women. In 1988 the federal government announced the addition of yet another 120 jobs for the Taxation Data Centre.81

The sixth transitional factor was the corporate responses of Inco and Falconbridge to the depressed environment of the 1970s. For Inco, the post-OPEC period was extremely difficult because it had previously diversified and established mines in the tropics that were based on cheap energy. The altered state of the global mining economy by 1977 forced the company to reduce its costs by laying off workers, cutting production, and selling some of its operations. In 1982 Inco made a crucial decision to set up a formal productivity-improvement program as part of its long-term corporate strategy. 82

In line with this policy, the Copper Cliff North Mine was reactivated in 1984 as a mining research facility using advanced automated equipment and computerized controls. Two years later the Crean Hill Mine was opened as an all-electric operation and the Copper Refinery was modernized. Another advance in 1987 was the first appearance of continuous mining operations. In order to meet provincial acid rain regulations, large investments have been made in the upgrading of its milling, smelter, and acid plants; upon completion in 1994, these facilities will be among the most technically advanced and pollution-free in the world.

Falconbridge, too, introduced advanced mining technologies that use mechanized mining equipment, automated systems, electrified operations, and continuous mining techniques; the Onaping Mine was used as a test facility (see Figure 11). 83  As a result of this modernization, productivity at Inco and Falconbridge rose by 70 and 100 per cent respectively during the 1980s.84   Another important consequence has been the dramatic improvement observed in the quality of the surrounding air, soil, and vegetation. Since the late 1960s, Inco’s emissions have been reduced by 70 per cent, which represents by far the largest tonnage reduction by any organization in North America.85  The innovative technology that made the reductions possible has also improved working conditions and quality of the labour force.

A new era began in 1988 when Inco, for the first time since 1979, again began to hire miners.86 The dramatic turnabout in the fortunes of Inco and Falconbridge by the late 1980s lends support to Schumpeter’s claim that an era of economic turbulence is often followed by a period of innovative corporate responses.87 The changed situation also minimized the fears of the early 1980s that the mineral industry’s life-cycle was shifting from maturity to decline.88 On the contrary, it appears that both corporations have undergone many of the transformations required for free trade and the competitive environment of the 1990s.

The final transitional element was the belated emergence of forward and backward linkages related to the mining sector. Indeed, recent trends suggest that the Sudbury area may finally be about to develop into a true mining complex based on more than the physical extraction of minerals. An example of the broadening of the resource base to include technological development is the formation of Continuous Mining Systems (CMS). The purpose of this company, which was established in 1984 with Inco as its majority shareholder, is to design, manufacture, and market innovative mining equipment (see Figure 12). By 1987 CMS had made its first export sales.89

Backward linkages have also intensified. This development has featured greatly expanded business for local and international enterprises in wholesaling and distribution and the fabrication and assembly of machine parts. Many of these enterprises have been attracted to the industrial parks found in the regional municipality. The pivotal location of Sudbury in this connection is made evident by the fact that some ninety mines can be found situated within three hundred kilometres (180 miles).90  Many of the new wholesaling and distribution businesses have come into being which serve not only the Sudbury Basin, but all of Northern Ontario as well, as local and foreign manufacturers have capitalized on the regional potential for the assembly of machine parts and specialized mining equipment.


This paper suggests that the history of Sudbury may offer lessons for resource communities victimized by the “staples” trap. While it is true that Sudbury’s size and location are unique, it is nevertheless clear that the “human dynamic” in the form of individual initiative, political leadership, community action, and entrepreneurial creativity can shape the urban economy. Sudbury’s experience also shows that large changes can be made in a dramatically short time. As recently as 1982, Sudbury was considered to be a dying community; two years later it was chosen as a world urban case study of successful adjustment.

Evidence that some progress was being made with regard to this pathway to the future came in 1988 with the apparent halt of population decline and the acknowledgement that Sudbury had one of the most dynamic economies in Canada.91 This changing historical perspective suggests that it may be wise to devote more attention to the contemporary aspects of urban history. By doing so, historians and others could perhaps help troubled communities and regions by offering insight gained from similar experiences elsewhere.

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