Home of the World’s Greatest Mining Business: Sudbury – by Ross Harkness (Star Weekly – March 14, 1953)

The Star Weekly, which ceased publication in 1973, was the weekend supplement to the Toronto Star.

The real silent service is not the Royal Navy; it is the Canadian nickel industry. While Labrador, Chibougamau, Kitmat and Alberta have been reveling in the white light of publicity, the Sudbury basin of Ontario has gone quietly about he business of building up the most gigantic mining enterprise in Canada and the biggest of its kind in the world.

It is hard to avoid talking in superlatives when the people of Sudbury boast, quite truthfully, that no civilized man in the Western world passes a day of his life without using in some form or other a product of their rocky environs.

They will tell you, and the dominion bureau of statistics confirms it, that Sudbury workers are the highest paid in Canada, earning an average of $66.05 a week, compared with and average of $54.47 in Toronto and $50.75 in Montreal.

They boast, and the department of labour agrees, that they are the most unionized area in Canada, and that their local 598 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers is twice as big and twice as rich as any other in Canada.

“Within ten years there’ll be 55,000 miners here ad they’ll all belong to our union,” a union official confidently predicted. The present membership, which includes just about every nickel miners and mill worker in Canada, is 16,000.

Perhaps he is merely exhibiting the natural optimism of the professional organizer, but the fact is the population of the Sudbury basin has increased seven times in 20 years; industry is investing $20,000,000 a year in capital expansion and $2,500,000 a year in looking for new mines; and the major employer has built in three years $7,000,000 worth of new houses, which it rents to employees for less than half what they would have to pay for a similar home in Toronto.

The miners of Sudbury and those who process the ore they wrest from the earth divided among then a payroll of $55,000,000 last year, which is $10,000,000 more than the year before. Their hourly rate is one of the highest anywhere for miners, but in addition they are paid a bonus which has amounted to $3.00 an hour. A union official told me he has helped miners who could not read or write make out tax returns for incomes of $6,500.

Lively Lives Up to Name

The Sudbury basin produces 75 per cent of the world’s nickel, and nickel is one of the most important toughening ingredients there is for steel. It produces most of the world’s platinum (about $19,000,000 worth a year), a third of Canada’s copper, and considerable quantities of silver and cobalt. It is also a most important producer of palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium, selenium and tellurium, all rare and valuable minerals for which new uses are being found every year.

And strangest of all, to get these metals they actually mine an iron ore described as a nickel-bearing iron sulphide mineral called pyrrhotite, and throw the iron away. By the time it has been put through all the processes required to extract the nickel, the iron is no good.

So great us the demand for the mineral wealth of this saucer-shaped basin in the Laurentian shield that in 25 years its mines and smelters and refineries have never ceased expanding. In the past three years $100,000,000 has been spent on plant expansion, while another $30,000,000 has been authorized. The plants were already so big scarcely anybody except those who read the financial pages notices the increase.

Residents of this rich mineral area smile condescendingly at the 10,000,000 tons of iron ore a year Labrador will produce, and the fanfare that is accompanying its development. They are already mining 1,000,000 tons of nickel-bearing ore a month and the goal for 1953 is 13,000,000 tons. Some of their mines are so big more than one shaft is required to hoist the ore blasted from their stygian depths, and at least eight of these individual shafts are bigger than those of any gold mine in North America, some of them four or five times as big.

While prospectors are roaming all over northern Canada in search of more iron and uranium and copper and gold, diamond drillers every year are uncovering more nickel in the Sudbury basin than is being mined, so that the known quantity of nickel-bearing ore is steadfastly increased.

All this has brought unparalleled prosperity to a geographically small section of Canada whose apparent barrenness appals the casual visitor.

Sudbury city, the metropolis of the county and mining district bearing the same name, has quietly slipped into sixth place among Ontario cities, with a population of 70,884 for the metropolitan area. When incorporated as a city in 1919 it had scarcely the 10,000 required by law.

A new town of Lively, of 500 homes, 12 miles west of Sudbury, has mushroomed in two years, complete with schools, churches, stores, athletic grounds and tree-shaded streets, as casually as most parts of the country would lay a watermain or grade a road. Eighteen miles across the rim the town of Falconbridge has become a pleasant and important community, while the old towns of Copper Cliff, Coniston, Creighton and Levack have enjoyed a steady prosperity.

Nickel mixed with copper was found in the Sudbury district in 1848 and rediscovered when the CPR was being built across Northern Ontario in 1883, but in those days it was considered a nuisance, for it made copper harder to refine. In fact, it was named nickel after Old Nick because of its infuriating qualities. No use was found for it except to make “German silver” teaspoons until a U.S. scientist discovered that alloyed with iron it made extra tough plates for battleships, and thereafter nickel became identified in the minds of many with war, tough it was quickly adapted to a thousand peacetime uses.

In the early days there were a score of companies in the field, but a succession of amalgamations reduced the number to two, although there are several independents with considerable promise. The mammoth International Nickel Co. of Canada Ltd., owns 100,000 acres in Northern Ontario, and with 16,500 employees in Canada is, next to the railways, this country’s biggest employer of labour. Falconbridge Nickel Mines Ltd. Owns 53,000 acres. Scattered in seven countries, International Nickel has a total of 26,000 employees.

Canada has led the world in production of nickel since 1905, but its first real boom was during World War One. At the end of the war Sudbury experienced its one and only depression. Within ten years, however, so many peacetime uses had been found for the gleaming metal that a new boom was under way and 1929 saw the biggest expansion program until 1951. The nickel boom carried Sudbury through the depression of the 1930s with steadily increasing employment and even the end of World War Two did not halt its triumphal march.

Among Strategic Targets

In 1951, nickel sales amounted to $286,700,000, or nearly twice as much as all the gold mined in Canada in a year, and when the present expansion program is completed production will be 65 per cent above the prewar high, for apart from the rearmament program the demand for nickel is increasing. Modern industry would collapse without it.

The fast powerful and safe automobile of today is possible only because nickel hardens the iron of its motor and toughens the steel of its moving parts. Without nickel the airplane would still be a World War One flying kite. Nickel shields our radios from static, improves our telephones, increases the safety of our railways, steamships and bridges. Nickel steel springs contribute to our comfort; stainless nickel steel beautifies our homes and offices. Even articles that contain no nickel are possible only because of nickel in machines that make them. For example, the thread for synthetic fabrics is extruded through nickel steel dies.

We even carry in our pockets the new nickel coin on which is a picture of a nickel refinery.
Nickel is playing a vital role in the defense program. It is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of jet engines, toughens the armor plate of tanks and submarines, and hardens the barrels of rifles and cannons. It was with considerable satisfaction, therefore, that the U.S. bureau of mines estimated that Canada alone produces more nickel than the entire Soviet bloc.

Residents of the nickel district take pride, though hardly consolation, in the fact that they are militarily one of the most strategic targets in the Western world.

From 13 shafts throughout the Sudbury area radiate more than 300 miles of tunnels, and some of them are as well finished inside as the London underground. Along these, electric trains speed miners to and from work. A nickel mine is usually hot, another characteristic of Old Nick, but the most gigantic air conditioning system in the world make Frood as comfortable to work in as any surface factory.

At Creighton min the International Nickel Company recently completed a 10,000 ton concentrator at which the ore is ground into dust and much of the rock removed by mechanical means. The concentrate is then mixed with water and piped like oil through a pipeline 7 ½ miles to the smelters at Copper Cliff, where the nickel and copper are removed. The copper is refined at another plant in Copper Cliff, while the nickel is sent for refining to Port Colborne, Ontario, Wales or the U.S., and the precious metals to Acton, England.

I t was to house employees of the new concentrator and the overflow from Creighton mine that the new town of Lively was built.

No sooner was Lively occupied than it ran into a problem that is plaguing every booming community in Canada – that of schooling. The company built a 10-room public school, which in any normal community would be ample for a town of 500 families, but it was overcrowded from the day it was opened, and an addition to double its capacity became necessary.

Much the same situation persists throughout the Sudbury district. The city of Sudbury, for example, had the highest birth rate and the lowest death rate in Ontario for the first quarter of 1952, It had 36.5 births per 1,000 population compared with an Ontario average of 25.3 and a Quebec average of approximately 30. Its death rate was 7.1 compared with an Ontario average of 9.8.

And the fact that there are 2,672 more men than women in Sudbury may interest the girls. This has made Sudbury an attractive spot for young women school teachers, but a headache for the board of education which has to suffer  one of the largest turnovers in Canada.