Be Not Afraid of Greatness or Sudbury: A Cosmic Accident – by Kenneth Hayes (Part 2 of 2)

Sudbury-born Kenneth Hayes currently teaches  architectural history at the University of Toronto.

This essay was commissioned by the Musagetes Foundation on the occasion of the Musagetes Sudbury Cafe. It appears in the book Sudbury: Life in a Northern Town / Sudbury: au nord de notre vie.

Musagetes is a private foundation based in Guelph, Ontario which seeks to transform contemporary life by working with artists, cultural mediators, public intellectuals and other partners to develop new approaches to building community and culture.

Kenneth Hayes – Be Not Afraid of Greatness or Sudbury: A Cosmic Accident (Part 2 of 2)

Sudbury’s development displays some of these features in their later, more advanced forms. The “I” in Inco’s name proclaimed the venture international, but the dominant company in the exploitation of Sudbury’s ore reserves was essentially American. Inco may nominally have been based in Toronto, but Canada’s role in this relationship was at best that of junior partner in a kind of corporate suzerainty.

Falconbridge, the newer and smaller corporation in Sudbury, generally enjoyed a better reputation than Inco, but it was not that different. In fact, the rivalry between Inco and Falconbridge over the course of the twentieth century often had the unreal air of a duopoly — the minimum diversity required to maintain the appearance of open competition while colluding for the same ends. (11)  In the last decade, Inco and Falconbridge were purchased, respectively, by the giant mining corporations Vale, from Brazil, and Xstrata, from Switzerland. This situation is still regarded (not without some degree of xenophobia) as abnormal, but the truth is that Sudbury has never really ruled itself.

Understandably, diversification has been Sudbury’s cultural and economic mandate in recent decades. Fuelled by the North’s long-standing regionalist grievances, the city went through a phase of public investment that resulted in the creation of the Taxation Data Centre, Science North and improved health-care and educational facilities, but there are now signs that vigorous private initiative is rising from the thrall of the mines, and doing so in Sudbury’s own inimitable way.

The usual process of industrial formation starts with small workshops and, by a process of consolidation, arrives at big industrial enterprises. In Sudbury, manufacturing has followed a different course. Its impetus — the movement by the major mining corporations to outsource services, which provided the initial contracts with which to establish small businesses — came late. But in order for these mining-service companies to grow and to survive the effects of periodic strikes, they needed to cultivate new markets and therefore sought either to diversify or to specialize. 

More than four hundred new businesses have thus developed in the last few decades. These new ventures have had a stabilizing effect on the local economy and have greatly increased local industrial-design and engineering capacities. There has, however, been a lag in conceptually assimilating this new phenomenon. The established image of the city is of rugged, hardrock mining and labour conflict,  while the new reality is one of progressive investment in high-tech manufacturing and services, designed to circulate globally along the distinct trade lines established by mining. Mining’s unique spatial network is tied to places usually far removed from the centres of global finance.

In Sudbury, one meets specialized workers — from diamond drillers to geo-tech surveyors — who have worked in such diverse places as Kazakhstan, Chile, Norway, Indonesia, Sardinia, Utah, Micronesia and the Dominican Republic. This, obviously, is not the list of finance, software and biotech cities canonized by urban theorists such as Saskia Sassen and Richard Florida. But minerals have their own map, and mining fosters what could be called geo-cosmopolitanism, a network governed by the wealth underground and only secondarily concerned with problems of access and distribution.

Sudbury’s distinct form of globalization is thus a holdout from an era when production dominated distribution as an economic concern. Although an improvement over the haywire approach, the geo-cosmopolitan sensibility does not necessarily possess the positive cultural attributes of other forms of cosmopolitanism, and it certainly does not correspond to urban sophistication. Instead, it is predicated on an intense local identity, which is often at odds with political reality. Nevertheless, it would be unthinkable for a city of Sudbury’s scale and level of development to exist at most mining sites. Traditionally, mining companies were forced to be self-reliant to a remarkable degree, but because Sudbury was initially founded as a logging town at the junction of two railway lines, it was more accessible than most mining towns from the start.

This is the key to the city’s continued growth and current relative prosperity. The fact of the city’s permanence testifies to the extraordinary size of the mineral reserves here, but it is transportation that sustains the place. Perhaps this is why Sudburians are so intensely interested in the state of roads, but be that as it may, Sudbury is the rare case of a mining camp outliving the resources on which it was founded to become a city with its own internal dynamic.

Now that the city is emerging from the grip of mining, it is tempting to consider nickel Sudbury’s damnosa hereditas, the boon that eventually reveals itself as blight. But for all the deficiency of its urban culture, Sudbury is graced with an unusually well-developed urban core. Though small, in part because half of the available contiguous area is occupied with rail yards, the core has a full matrix of streets and lanes, making it a significantly more advanced urban form than such main-street towns as Kitchener or Waterloo. Ultimately, however, the limits of Sudbury’s initial site led to the construction of New Sudbury and the resulting bifurcation of the city after World War II. A similar process is presently underway with the development of the South End, rendering the city ever more dispersed. 

Finding sufficient suitable land on which to build is a constant quest. The constraints on land available for development are, in part, the result of a peculiar legislative history too complex to explain here, but they are primarily a result of the landscape, which really provides no adequate place on which to build a city. (12)  Sudbury’s builders have always faced the Scylla of steep, rocky hills and the Charybdis of swamps and muskeg. Though poorly drained, the sparse areas of flat land took little effort to clear and thus developed as the city’s earliest neighbourhoods. The wealthy and powerful, however, favoured living on the shores of Sudbury’s lakes, even if it meant building private roads or locating on the city’s hilltops.

In Sudbury, topography corresponds quite closely to class, but the “Mansion on the Hill” about which Bruce Springsteen sang so plaintively has become a mass phenomenon. Several conventional suburban neighbourhoods have been recently blasted into the top of rocky hills — a case of local skills facilitating a normative vision of dwelling that is at odds with the facts of the ground and far from any contemporary vision of ecological harmony. 

Actually, the city has numerous features that defy all expectations of both urban and natural form. Maki Avenue, an elite residential street, is a fascinating example of the confusion of nature and culture in Sudbury. Built on a peninsula that extends almost a kilometre into Lake Nehpawan, it appears to be a perfectly ordinary suburban street, except that every house on both sides overlooks water. The Kingsway, where the banal melds with the fantastic, is another example. At first glance, it appears to be an absolutely typical North American commercial strip; it is more or less level and straight, and lined with fast-food restaurants and strip malls.

Yet just behind the parking lots are walls of rock carved out by blasting. Car dealerships cluster in this channel of partly natural, partly fabricated space, defying the logic of their usual association with wide-open lots at the edge of town. Recently, a district of big-box retail stores was built on a stone plateau where Barry Down Road intersects the Kingsway, demonstrating the power of new retail models to overcome the most forbidding technical impediments.

Sudbury’s oddity is also manifest at a regional level. A unique spatial macro-form developed out of the crater’s shape and size. Instead of the concentric pattern that many cities assume, Sudbury acquired a series of satellite settlements located at or near the site of bodies of ore on the Nickel Irruptive. This elliptical ring of towns relies on Sudbury for social services, entertainment, etc., but instead of moving into the city’s centre in the classic North American pattern, many workers moved outward from dormitory communities, built just inside the valley, to the mine sites. In fact, Sudbury proper is not, in a physical sense, the centre of this system, as it is also located on the periphery of the ring.

This unusual structure, which has created a powerful dialectic between “the city” and “the valley,” has had numerous consequences for the social and even political order of the city. In the outlying communities, it instilled a stronger independence than is usual in suburbs, but in order to govern these towns effectively, Sudbury was established as a regional municipality in 1973 and, in 2001, all of the towns were amalgamated into the City of Greater Sudbury.  However, this political manoeuvre has by no means resolved the opposition between the two forces.

The foregoing comments may make it seem Sudbury dwells in the past, but that is not the case at all. Northern Ontario is fundamentally modern, and Sudbury even has a decidedly futuristic aspect — as seen, for example, in Thomas Alva Edison’s brief involvement in developing the mines, in the presence of Science North (which looks rather  like a UFO or a lunar landing module) and, most recently, in the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB).

The SNOLAB is one of the city’s many invisible presences. Perhaps only a few hundred people have ever been inside it, yet it holds a special place in the collective imagination of Sudburians. Located at the 6,800-foot level of Inco’s Creighton mine, SNOLAB is currently the deepest underground observatory in use worldwide. Now the site of many long-term physics experiments, it was inaugurated with a geodesic sphere made of acrylic and stainless steel, and suspended in a ten-storey, water-filled cavern cut directly into the rock.  This giant vessel contained 1,000 tonnes of heavy water and was lined with 9,600 photomultiplier tubes to detect flashes of light known as Cherenkov radiation. The earth’s mantle shields the observatory from random cosmic particles, allowing only neutrinos to penetrate. Curiously, the inversion of an observatory located deep underground mirrors the inversion of a detector for evanescent neutrinos located at the site of a massive meteorite’s impact.

Sudbury abounds in signs and traces of its extraterrestrial origins, from the nickel itself, a metal commonly found on meteorites, to shatter cones produced in the rock by the force of the collision (14)  to traces of the exotic fullerene. The Onaping Formation, a black tuff on the northern edge of the irruptive, was the first confirmed deposit of naturally occurring fullerene, a form of carbon discovered only in 1985. (15)  These carbon molecules, which feature sixty or seventy atoms arranged in a sphere, may have been present in that form on the meteorite or they may have been synthesized on impact; no one knows exactly how they were preserved for nearly two billion years.

Even more recently, it has been discovered that these spherical molecules, like miniature icosahedral prisons, contain astral gases. (16)   Asteroids are known to sometimes contain amino acids, which has led some to speculate that collisions with asteroids may have seeded the earth with the chemicals necessary to initiate life or may even have brought life itself to earth. (17)  Later impacts caused death and destruction, but the Sudbury impact occurred near the time of the origins of life on earth. As Sudbury-born artist Paul Lamothe says, Sudbury may be the spark that ignited the primal ooze. (18) 

It makes perfect sense that the geodesic sphere of the SNOLAB, located deep in the earth, replicates the structure of fullerene, and that scientists search for minute cosmic particles in the aftermath of the immense meteorite that shaped Sudbury, for it is a place where telluric forces are felt with particular intensity, and where their connection to the astral plane is also evident. The heavens and the underworld seem to meet here, and the infernal patina on the rock sometimes makes it look as if the darkness in the depths of the mines has crept out into broad daylight.

Nickel was named after the devil himself, so it is not surprising the air in Sudbury still carries a whiff of brimstone. Surely it must have occurred to some watching the flow of molten slag that they were witnessing the biblical lake of fire, as if the landscape was not the result of our doing but a sign of some otherworldly wrath — retribution, no doubt, for our transgression against nature or the price of unloosing so many weapons on the world.

Life in this northern town has an eschatological quality that is both immediate and impossibly remote, as if one lives at ground zero two billion years after Armageddon. In Sudbury, it may look like the end is near, but it feels familiar, like it’s been here before.


11) In fact, Falconbridge was founded in 1928, little more than a week after the merger and reorganization of two other mining companies that resulted in the International Nickel Company. See Sudbury, Rail Town to Regional Capital, ed. C.M. Wallace and Ashley Thompson (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1993), 122.

12) Good accounts are presented in Sudbury, Rail Town to Regional Capital, 155–57 and 221–23.

13) For the SNOLAB’s current status, see Adam McDowell, “Dark Matters,” The National Post, September 4, 2010.

14) The Apollo astronauts toured Sudbury in 1971 not because it looked like the moon, as is commonly thought, but because Sudbury offered good opportunities to study impact geomorphology. See Sudbury, Rail Town to Regional Capital, 275.

15) Luann Becker, Jeffery L. Bada, et al., “The Discovery of Fullerenes in the 1.85-Billion-Year-Old Sudbury Meteorite Crater,” Science 265. no. 5172 (July 1994): 642–45.

16) Luann Becker, Robert J. Poreda and Ted E. Bunch, “Fullerenes: An Extraterrestrial Carbon Carrier Phase for Noble Gases,” PNAS 97, n. 7 (March 28, 2000): 2979–83.

17) See “Asteroid” in Wikipedia.

18) This claim is part of a postcard-based artwork by Lamothe, which was exhibited in The Sudbury Basin: Industrial Topographies – Topographies Industrielles du Bassin de Sudbury, curated and edited by Rosemary Donegan at the Art Gallery of Sudbury in 1999. The gallery also published an exhibition catalogue under the same title; see p. 10.