What about the People? Place, Memory, and Industrial Pollution in Sudbury

By Stacey Zembrzycki

A view of the slag storage area, from Gutcher Street in Gatchell, circa 1970. Anonymous local photographer.

A view of the slag storage area, from Gutcher Street in Gatchell, ca. 1970. Anonymous local photographer.

Much of the industrial ruins resulting from nearly 130 years of nickel mining in Sudbury, Ontario, are now hidden from plain sight, camouflaged under a successful re-greening program that has led to the planting of over nine million trees, and the clean-up of many area lakes and thousands of hectares of soil. And yet, despite this invisibility, vestiges of the industrial past continue to exist and do harm. “Making connections where they are hard to trace,” as Ann Laura Stoler reminds us, “is not designed to settle scores but rather to recognize that these are unfinished histories, not of victimized pasts but consequential histories that open to differential futures.”[1] Understanding the visible and invisible tolls that heavy industry has taken on residents’ bodies requires a willingness to explore these unfinished histories, a subject that is deeply implicated in an Environment Canada investigation in the region.

On October 8, 2015, Sudbury’s local media received an anonymous email stating that Environment Canada and the RCMP had spent the day “raiding” the headquarters of Vale (formerly Inco Limited) in Copper Cliff, a small nickel mining community just west of Sudbury, searching for files that pertained to a 2012 federal investigation into alleged Fisheries Act violations.[2] Nearly three weeks later, details about this investigation became public, revealing that the local mining company has been accused of allowing industrial effluents to leach into a number of local waterways since at least 1997, and perhaps even going as far back as 1963. The CBC reported that the Environment Canada warrant “accuses the company of allowing ‘acutely lethal’ seepage from the smelter waste piles into water frequented by fish, and of knowing about the leakage for years.” As an oral and public historian actively engaged in a SSHRC-funded project entitled Mining Immigrant Bodies: A Multi-Ethnic Oral History of Industry, Environment, and Health in the Sudbury Region, which examines the “inescapable ecological” relationships that have been forged between Sudburians and the landscape since the postwar period, I have spent the last year listening to stories that intersect in important ways to this latest investigation.[3] Continue reading

Our Bodies and Inescapable Ecologies: A Look at the Mining Community of Sudbury, Ontario

By Kaleigh Bradley

“Where does the body end and ‘non-human nature’ begin? When we recognize that human bodies are directly affected by their environments, we are forced to acknowledge that humans are not simply agents of environmental change, but objects of that change” – Linda Nash, Inescpable Ecologies

Last week I was surprised to hear about the toxic leak of nitrous oxide at Vale’s Copper Cliff Mine in my hometown of Sudbury, Ontario. Residents near the mine were told to leave or stay inside with their windows and doors shut until the toxic leak had cleared. Air quality readings showed levels of nitrous oxide that were about fifteen to twenty times higher than usual. A high-ranking mine employee told the CBC that the leak posed “no risk to the community,” although exposure to nitrous oxide is known to cause respiratory issues and it can be lethal in high doses. I wonder if after the gas had dissipated, and the residents and workers returned to their regular activities in the area, if they were completely safe from exposure? And what about the150 kilotonnes of sulphur dioxide that Vale’s Copper Cliff mine continues to release every year, despite its promise to reduce emissions? Is Sudbury a safe place to live today, even if it is a little greener?


Typical blackened rocks and stunted trees in Sudbury, ON. Source: Wikipedia.

Growing up in Sudbury, I didn’t think much of the industrial landscape that surrounded me. A
mining town with its black rocks, stunted trees, slag hills, and iconic Superstack, Sudbury was home. It was not until I began to venture outside of the Sudbury region that I realized something was very unnerving about my hometown. Trees growing in other cities, like Ottawa or Toronto were much taller and healthier. There were also several different species of trees besides birch or spruce lining the forests along the highways just outside of Sudbury. Rocks outside of town were any colour but black, and as far as I could tell, there were no slag hills, orange streams, or green-ish tailings ponds at our family’s cottage, about a 40 minute drive away. These other environments that I visited were not pristine because most ecosystems have been manipulated by humans. But why was Sudbury so different?

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‘It’s history, like it or not’: the Significance of Sudbury’s Superstack

By: Mike Commito and Kaleigh Bradley

Standing at a height of 1,250 feet, the Sudbury Superstack is the second tallest chimney in the world and runner-up to the CN Tower for the tallest structure in Canada. Until 1987, Sudbury Ontario had the dubious honour of having the world’s tallest smokestack. Today, the Stack is seen by some as a marker for Sudbury’s rich mining heritage but for others, it is also part of a much larger history of health and environmental problems.


“Sudbury and the Beast.” Courtesy of local photographer Greta Clarke.

Since the nineteenth century, Sudbury’s landscape was ravaged by the effects of the mining industry; over the years the vegetation disappeared with acid rain, and farmers found themselves unable to grow crops in the highly acidic soil. The International Nickel Company (INCO) built the Superstack in 1972 to disperse sulphur dioxide (SO2) and other pollutants away from the area, thereby addressing health and environmental concerns. The Stack’s construction coincided with a community regreening movement, which has reversed some of the environmental damage. The Superstack reduced local emission rates in recent years, but one could argue that INCO simply passed the buck, and the dispersion of SO2 became somebody else’s problem. Moreover, the Sudbury area continues to have higher rates of asthma and lung cancer than other parts of Ontario. For better or for worse, the Superstack has been a landmark along the Sudbury skyline for over forty years. And when Vale (formerly INCO) recently proposed demolishing the Superstack in the local media, we watched as an interesting public debate about the significance, history, and future of the stack ensued.

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Sudbury: The Journey from Moonscape to Sustainably Green

Roast yard near Victoria Mines, Sudbury 1898.  Greater Sudbury Historical Database.

Roast yard near Victoria Mines, Sudbury 1898. Greater Sudbury Historical Database.

The image of Sudbury, Ontario has long been associated with mining, smelting, and a barren landscape.  Perhaps most famously, the landscape of Sudbury has been said to be comparable to the landscape present on the moon.  Similarly, the image of the towering Sudbury Superstack is one which holds sway in the minds of many Canadians.  However, since the 1970s Sudbury has put considerable financial and community resources into mitigating the ecological impact of mining on the community.

Nickel was identified in the Sudbury Basin as early as 1750. Despite this discovery the early years of industry in Sudbury were dominated by forestry. By the mid 1880s forest fires and clear cut logging had already contributed to significant alteration of the natural landscape of Sudbury.

The industrial scars on the landscape increased as the mining industry developed in the area.  In 1888 the first roast yard and smelter were established in Copper Cliff, and marked the beginning of large scale mining in the Sudbury area. Between 1913 and 1916 the Mond Nickel Company removed all vegetation from the Coniston area to provide fuel for the roasting yard.

The roasting method was used by mining companies in Sudbury until 1929 as the primary means of separating minerals.  Fueled by cordwood these beds resulted in clouds of sulfur dioxide spreading from the beds at ground level. The roast beds have been blamed for much of the environmental destruction in Sudbury.  However, it has also been argued that the later smelter technology also contributed to considerable environmental devastation by releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.[i]

The result of years of continuous mining and expulsion of associated pollutants resulted in approximately 7,000 lakes within 17,000 square kilometers being acidified, 20,000 hectares of barren land being created in which no vegetation grows and significant erosion has occurred, and 80,000 hectares of semi-barren land.[ii]  Continue reading

A Small Spark, a Big Flame: Two Wildcat Vignettes from the Summer of ’66

By Ian Milligan

Today’s Air Canada wildcat strikes, which led to widespread delays and cancellations at Toronto’s Pearson and Montreal’s Dorval airports, surprised many Canadians. That it could all begin with a seemingly minor issue – the suspension of a number of workers who sarcastically applauded Labour Minister Lisa Raitt as she debarked from a flight last night – is, however, familiar when compared to the “wildcat wave” that was in full swing throughout the summer of 1966.

Indeed, the events of the last 36 hours are reminiscent of several large events that swept the Canadian industrial scene throughout that hot summer of labour unrest. In this post, I’ll take us back to that wild summer of unrest, and help show that the Air Canada wildcat strike is hardly a unique phenomenon. Continue reading

Connecting Past, Present and Future: A Website Review of Stacey Zembrycki’s “Sharing Authority With Baba”

Internet sources can present challenges in the university classroom, but they also offer many new, exciting, creative learning opportunities. Rather than barring internet sources altogether, we should be teaching our students to engage critically with a range of sources, including the many great digital projects available online.

One such example is Stacey Zembrycki’s website, “Sharing Authority With Baba: A Collaborative History of Sudbury’s Ukrainian Community, 1901-1939.” Produced through Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS), this site serves as an exemplary model of the innovative ways that scholarly work can be shared in a digital format. Continue reading

“Come On Over”: Call-In Collaborative History in Northeastern Ontario

The 'Come on Over' Website

When up in the Sudbury and Manitoulin areas for a quick research trip in mid-September, driving several hundred kilometres, I became well-acquainted with CBC Sudbury. On Morning North, there was a regular program by two Laurentian University professors conducting research for their upcoming book Come on Over: Northeastern Ontario A-Z. In what sounds like a cross between an encyclopedia and a guidebook, the community really seemed engaged in its production. Continue reading

South Yorkshire and the Nickel Belt: Parallels to Avoid

Lake in Canada's Nickel Belt near Sudbury

David Zylberberg

From at least 1929, the Nickel Belt region around Sudbury was the main operation of two large and generally successful mining companies, INCO and Falconbridge. Although there were a number of labour disputes, periodic layoffs and major expansions, the situation largely continued until the commodity boom of the mid 2000s. There was a spate of acquisitions and mergers in the international mining sector and the world’s second and third largest nickel companies received global interest. In 2006, Falconbridge was acquired by a Swiss Company, XSTRATA, while INCO became part of Brazilian VALE in a $19 billion dollar sale. Since these both involved the sale of Canadian companies to foreign investors, they fell under the regulation of the Investment Canada Act, which states that such takeovers must be a net benefit to Canada. The recently elected Harper government agreed to both sales with a list of conditions that have never been made public, although it is widely understood that both companies promised not to layoff any Canadian employees for 3 years.

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May Day in Hamilton, Ontario

march 1The first of May, celebrated in many nations across the world as Labour Day or International Workers Day, has a long tradition of worker’s activism and protest.  This year was no different, as protestors around the world rallied to send various messages to governments.

May Day is not officially recognized as Labour Day in northern North America, despite its North American roots, which stretch back to the 1886 Haymarket affair, and the struggle for the eight-hour workday.  In 1958, to separate workers’ celebrations between the US and USSR, Congress officially designated May 1 as Loyalty Day in the US, while Labor Day was moved to the first Monday in September.  This also marks official Labour Day celebrations in Canada. Continue reading