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Book Review: Sudbury has always been a treasure to exploit

 

 

From Meteorite Impact to Constellation City  by Oiva Saarinen

This  broad painting of the area’s history engages, stimulates, provokes and instructs in equal measure. He does an excellent job of peeling back Sudbury’s multi-layered history identifying 15 milestones as chapters. The reader is taken on a journey of epic proportions that starts with an event that took place eons ago but has had a profound effect on the area.

The “Sudbury Event,” we are told by this retired geography professor, is “a geological phenomenon of gigantic proportions involving…the collision of two worlds and a violent release of energy.”s broad painting of the area’s history engages, stimulates, provokes and instructs in equal measure. He does an excellent job of peeling back Sudbury’s multi-layered history identifying 15 milestones as chapters. The reader is taken on a journey of epic proportions that starts with an event that took place eons ago but has had a profound effect on the area.

The resulting Sudbury Basin has physically determined the pattern of mining and with it the difficulties in establishing a coherent and an economically sustainable municipality. In spite of the treasure trove of mineral wealth, its civic government has always struggled to meet the basic municipal, social and cultural needs of its residents and to assure the viability of the municipality.

Saarinen has a thoughtful account of our aboriginal past that, more often then not, is neglected. Chapter 2, The Aboriginal /Colonial Frontier, reminds us that by the 17th century the British and French colonial powers discovered Northern Ontario. The British arrived from the north via the Hudson Bay with the Hudson Bay Company, the French from south via the French River system of the Great Lakes. The area had been a part of a vast commons inhabited by the original inhabitants who, for the most part, took what they needed and left the rest alone. Exploited by the colonial powers through their surrogate trading companies, Northern Ontario and its aboriginal population, became a “company town writ large.”

After the arrival of European explorers, missionaries, and traders, “aboriginal tribes were devastated by an outbreak of smallpox in 1670 and 1763 that depopulated parts of Northern Ontario.”

Chapter 4 recounts the railway coming and with it prospectors and speculators. “One of the interesting aspects of the Sudbury area’s mining history concerns the ease with which this economic wealth transferred from prospector and speculator to single company with a monopoly,” says the author.

Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 describe settlements emerging out the wilderness to become Sudbury, a city of 30,000 dependent on mining, and Copper Cliff, a separate self-sufficient company town.

Larry O’Connor, a mayor of Sudbury who served seven consecutive terms, offered this opinion in response to the chair of the Royal Ontario Nickel Commission of 1917 on taxation. “I think the nickel industry should not be taxed at all. Personally, I think that the expenditure of money by the nickel companies in this district is sufficient for the province without direct tax. I think they are paying a good enough tax.”

The municipality has paid the price for wise men such as O’Connor ever since.

Over the years, the Sudbury’s geological basin has served as a template of division rather than cohesion. Conflicting interests emerged early with mining activity and persists to this day: conflicts between civic authority and civil participation; between dormitory communities and distinct mining complexes; and to day conflicts in managing subsequent unsustainable urban sprawl within the City of Greater Sudbury.

The title of Chapter 13 is A Union Town? (It’s a puzzlement to have a question mark after the chapter’s title.) It effectively chronicles the local labour movement and its place in the community with the area’s miners and mill workers finally organized. The Mine Mill Local 598, certificated in the late 1940s, grew to become the largest local union in Canada. It has left a significant community legacy.

With the arrival of the union, the company-town mentality diminished supporting the empowerment of local civil society represented by individuals who were able to leave their mark on the community outside of the local government.

From this point in time, union presidents became part of the power structure in the Sudbury area,” writes the author.

We come to the end of the story with Chapter 14, Healing the Landscape; and finally, with an upbeat conclusion Chapter 15, Beyond a Rock and a Hard Place.

Saarinen writes, “These views of the future have been bolstered by a Bank of Montreal projection that nearly 4,000 jobs could be added to the area by the end of 2016, and that “Sudbury’s economy could outperform the province for the next 10 years.”

One local economist has gone even further and stated he’s “never been more optimistic about Sudbury’s economy.”

History is more than an account of events in time. It’s an analysis and interpretation of these events. Saarinen’s book, vast in scope, based on exhaustive research, and well written does justice to our history. The reviewer is left with an appreciation that Sudbury has always been a treasure to exploit from the 17th century to the present and, without forceful and visionary civic leadership, there is scant regard for the social needs of its residents and community life diminishes. It should be read by all and particularly those with a civic responsibility.

 

Oryst Sawchuk is a Sudbury architect/community planner.
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