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The #Soapbox: I moved to Sudbury a half-century ago — the city has radically transformed

And it's not just the physical landscape that has changed, says Laurentian professor emeritus of history Dieter Buse

On Sept. 4, 1969 at 4 p.m., the Buse family arrived in Sudbury. 

After the boom of the early 1960s, the academic market for historians had collapsed. Whereas four western Canadian universities had in 1966 offered full time positions when I applied for summer jobs with merely MA behind my name, in 1969 there were only three openings in all of Canada. 

I did have job possibilities in the US, having studied at the University of Oregon. But we wanted to return to Canada because it was hard to stomach the US murderous and immoral war in Vietnam and because we felt beholden to Canada since I had won three years of support with a Canada Council Doctoral Fellowship. 

We decided on Sudbury because we thought after two years our children would be bilingual and we would move on.

Fifty years later we remain, or half of us remain since the grown children have gone to work and live in different worlds and they are more than bilingual. In that time we witnessed the great transformation of Sudbury.

The reference is not to the regreening, it is to the demographic facts and change of life style in a city with little population growth. 

The super stack, nature left to do its recovery and the cheap labour of unemployed workers plus the people of Sudbury becoming wealthier made the regreening possible, in which some biologists helped. Now that I have the attention or the ire of those who take credit for a changed Sudbury, let me explain what an outsider observed over 50 years.

In 1969, at least 25,000 men worked for the two mining and smelting companies. Since families at that time had about three members to a household, nearly half the city of 150,000 depended on wages from one industry. 

Many talked about Mother Inco, loved and hated the companies, because in an indirect way those companies supplied tools and equipment for so much of the self-building of a place and people that in 1969 still saw itself as a mining camp with unions dominating the work force. 

The companies were also hated because their autocratic leaders had little interest in health and safety, liked to run company towns and hand out Christmas turkeys like a Dickens character. 

Yet the same companies were loved because, until the mid-1970s, they provided relatively high wages, job security and good pensions and benefits (of course, for wage labourers those benefits were only grudgingly attained and hard fought for by the unions who taught members that savings had to be set aside for long strikes.) 

And the companies doled out grants to scientists, clubs and charities, so the situation was described by one biologist responding to the lack of criticism about the dominant companies from the Laurentian researchers, “you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Hence, the early efforts to force change regarding pollution mostly came from the local workers fighting problems like the cancer-causing sintering plant (John Gagnon), or by NDP spokespersons like Elie Martel who exposed the collusion between government regulators and the companies avoiding pollution controls, or from outside by individuals such as Mort Schulman who measured sulphur levels by sneaking into an Inco plant disguised as a worker.

In the 1970s tar paper shacks dotted lots of side roads. The west part of the city was so barren with such crude slag heaps that my wife wanted to leave immediately. 

But, once established with our sleeping bags, borrowed table and chairs in a townhouse that was poorly constructed during the housing crisis in 1970 - a woman and her children lived for months in a station wagon — we discovered Sudbury actually was not a barren landscape south and north of the strip burned by sulphur fumes. 

Ah yes those fumes descended every now and then in the 1970s, enough to see and feel.

The great transformation is reflected in the source of employment. Not mining and smelting but health, education, cultural institutions, taxation centre, Ontario Geological Survey and Science North all provide the type of middle class jobs that reflect a regional capital. 

Indeed, elsewhere in Northern Ontario, Sudbury became seen as “hog town north” because it has received so many federally and provincially-funded institutions. The university has gone from a jock school (in reputation) to a research and cultural centre decisively contributing to the city’s musical, artistic and literary life.

Sudbury has become a middle class city with many restaurants replacing the watering holes at rough hotels that once had a side entry for “ladies and gents.” 

The over-abundance of young single men in the early 1970s, who frequented the many men’s clothing stores and car lots, have been outnumbered by women in the age group 20 to 30. 

The latter are working, even if the majority have part time or precarious work. The suburbs have houses surrounded by flowers grown by the thousands of sacks of fertilizer and mulch that are stacked up in front of grocery and hardware stores in the spring and summer; those hardly existed in the 1970s

When workers families had gardens in the 1970s, they were mostly like my neighbours of Italian background: to supplement food.

Speaking of neighbours, perhaps our first little place in Minnow Lake represents the great transformation. 

When we moved there in 1970, across the street lived an Irish/French family. He worked at Inco repairing pumps and small engines. If I needed small tools, across the street I went. 

His wife did not work and the home relations were loud and full of drama. No hushed politeness in that ethnic mix. As he neared retirement, he started a small garden with no flowers. 

Next to them was a Polish family, and the wife did not work. The father worked at the Inco slag pour, and if I needed sledge hammers or big tools he had them. His mono-cultural garden was garlic. 

On the other side of them was a Finn who worked in a lumber camp, and our only encounter was soon after we moved in when he came, rifle in hand, demanding that I pay for the window broken by my kids. It had apparently been done by the kids who lived in the house before us. His wife did not work and rarely came out of the house. 

Next to us on one side lived a Belgian who did electrical work for Inco. His wife did not work. If I needed pliers or special wires...on the other side lived an Italian who was employed by a grocery store. His wife did some part-time work. 

All the yards of these neighbours had no trimmed lawns, just some rough grass and no flowers. Anyone can now go to Dundas Street east in Minnow Lake to see the great transformation in that the houses have been enlarged, the yards improved and most have flowers as part of the greening or move from working to middle class. 

But the Plaza Hotel across the lake will not daily be filled with rough, but good-natured, men’s talk or workers arranging “favours” for each other over beer. Favours means trading skills and doing jobs for each other.

Now we live in Lo-Ellen and all the neighbours have yards with many flowers, outdoor sitting areas, women who work or had worked before retirement. The houses are big and well kept. 

So do we represent the move from working class to middle class, just like the city? 

As someone who came from a background in construction, then was a poor student, we are now enjoying one good pension as a retired professor whose wife had worked part time. We are watching the veggies and flowers grow thanks to my nine composters.

Dieter K Buse, professor Emeritus, Laurentian University, after publishing many books on European and Canadian history, including Come on Over: Northeastern Ontario, has just co-authored the only studies of the social history relating to warfare in our region Untold: Northeastern Ontario’s Military Past. Vol 2 World War II – Peacekeeping.