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Memory Lane: Sudburians recall how they came together to heal the city’s broken landscape

Efforts of thousands resulted in today’s green and verdant city

Some members of the Toronto media got nasty when the announcement was made that the first stop on Prince Charles and Princess Diana's 1991 visit to Canada would be Sudbury.

Toronto Sun Queen's Park columnist Michele Mandel criticized Premier Bob Rae's decision to greet the Royal couple in the Nickel City on Oct. 24, 1991.

She wrote Sudbury was a "bleak, smelter centre," and too ugly for Royal welcomes. She questioned why the government didn't find "a prettier spot."

The newspaper also published a cartoon by Andy Donato depicting the premier preparing to offer coffee and doughnuts to the Prince and Princess of Wales at the foot of a grimy skyline cluttered with smokestacks.

More than 300 residents phoned a Sudbury radio station's hotline to complain about slurs in the Toronto tabloid.

"People here have become incensed with these kinds of depictions of Sudbury," Peter Wong, the city's mayor, told the media.

But Sun editor John Downing refused Donato's request to publish an apology.

 "We subsidize the hell out of the people of the north, why do we need to appease them?" I think this is a tempest in a slagheap," he said.

Eventually Mandel and Donato apologized in the local media for hurting Sudbury’s civic pride.* 

It's more than likely Mandel, Donato or Downing had never been to Sudbury or at least in a long time. Even 30 years ago Sudbury was well on its way to healing its landscape and was proudly showing off to Prince Charles. He was given a tour of Inco's $500-million facility that reduced pollutants from the Copper Cliff smelter.

Starting in the 1970s, an army of people, young and old, with the assistance of industry, volunteer organizations such as Vegetation Technical Advisory Committee (VETAC) and government investment created a modern miracle: the beautiful city we enjoy today. invited readers to share their memories of tree planting.

Wayne Hugli, a retired teacher and current president of the Sudbury Horticulture Society, has done a lot of digging. 

"Growing up in Coniston, I remember the barren hillsides around our small community, and the many days when prevailing winds carried sulphur into town, caused burning throats and eyes, and forcing the closure of windows during the day," he said.

When he was a student at Coniston Public School in the late 1950s, his senior class spent an afternoon planting tree seedlings along the shores of the creek that runs through the town as an Arbour Day event. 

Later when he was a leader in the Scouting organization in the 1970s, his pack participated in the Trees for Canada initiative to plant trees on sites near Coniston, in the Maley Drive Conservation Area, and close to the airport turnoff near Falconbridge.

As a teacher at L.J. Atkinson School in Garson in the 1970s, Hugli got his students interested in  the regreening program.

"I contacted Keith Winterhalter from Laurentian University to learn more about the project and invited him to speak to my Grade 4 class about the environmental work that VETAC (Sudbury Regreening Advisor Panel) was initiating throughout our city."

In July 2011, to celebrate the Sudbury Horticultural Society’s 100th anniversary, the Ontario Horticultural Association (OHA) held its annual provincial convention in Sudbury. The group shared Sudbury’s regreening story with delegates from across the province with keynote presentations by Stephen Monet from VETAC and Franco Mariotti from Science North.

"I planned and worked as guide for a regreening bus tour that provided delegates with an opportunity to visit the Jane Goodall Land Reclamation Trail, a school that had been regreened through VETAC’s Ugliest Schoolyard Contest, the regreening work being done by Vale near Dynamic Earth, and reclamation work done by Xstrata Nickel on their property in Falconbridge," remembered Hugli.

A memorial oak tree was planted near the entrance to the Jane Goodall Trail by the OHA president to commemorate the event.  

Hugli is involved with the Ugliest Schoolyard Contest which is sponsored by VETAC. 

"An earlier survey of schoolyards had shown that these expanses of gravel and asphalt were some of the most barren areas in our city," said Hugli.

"St. Paul the Apostle School in Coniston was the first contest winner. Trees, shrubs, perennials, and sod were added throughout the schoolyard thanks to generous in-kind and financial donations provided by enthusiastic community organizations and businesses."

To date, students and teachers from close to 50 schools have benefited from regreening projects since 2005.

This past summer Lockerby Composite School, Valley View Public School, and Montessori School of Sudbury benefited from playground makeovers.

Craig Miron shared his "regreening" experiences almost 50 years ago.

"I attended St. Hubert School in the 1960s and 1970s. (When I was) in about Grade 4 or 5, the school was approached by Laurentian University to try an experiment. As the school was located directly beside an active slag dump and the surrounding area was nothing but barren rock, they wanted to lime a patch of rock beside the school.

"Students were recruited for the task. My older brother, Doug, and I and all the other students carried five-gallon pails of lime and spread it on the plot. They told us that next year there would be grass there. The students thought ‘not a chance.’But next year, sure enough, grass was growing on the rock."

Brenda Edington said, “I attended Sudbury High from 1971 to 1976 and remember, as a student volunteer, distributing bags of lime at various sites east of Sudbury along Highway 17, prior to tree planting, to neutralize what earth was there. 

"We arrived by bus and ascended the lifeless black rock landscape carrying I think 25-kilogram (50 lbs.) bags of lime and spread it by hand. What is interesting was no one was wearing a (protective) mask. I don't recall gloves or any other safety standard being applied. Perhaps someone else will remember details."

Sudbury's regreening efforts have cost about $33 million and the job is only about half-finished

Citizens can do a small part by arranging for a commemorative tree to be planted in memory of a loved one or as an expression of thanks through the Sudbury Regional Tree Fund.

Commemorative trees are planted in the Tom Davies Commemorative Forest, located within the Lake Laurentian Conservation Area which is operated by the Nickel District Conservation Authority. About 1,000 commemorative trees such as white pine, red pine, jack pine, white cedar and tamarack are planted each year. 

Vicki Gilhula is a Sudbury freelance writer. Memory Lane is made possible by our Community Leaders Program. 

* "Tabloid offends Sudbury pride," Windsor Star (Canadian Press) Oct. 11, 1991