by Eliot Perrin
The Flour Mill neighbourhood in Sudbury serves as an almost mythical place in Franco-Ontarian identity. Much like St-Boniface further west, it survived for decades as a Francophone enclave, maintaining and nurturing the French language, its institutions, and artistic production. For individuals of Franco-Ontarian background such as myself, it remains a place of residual family memory and lore.
Sudbury is a city in Northern Ontario long associated with its massive mining infrastructure. Since the late 1800s, the Sudbury Basin has been mined for nickel that, in the 20th century, came to be in high demand thanks to its use in steel production. As the area’s mining operations expanded, the International Nickel Company (Inco) also built smelting, milling, and refining facilities, further increasing the number of workers in the area. Following successful unionization drives, Sudburians experienced a growing degree of prosperity throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Since its settlement, Sudbury has hosted both Franco-Ontarian institutions and industrial work. Sudbury was chosen as a townsite following the discovery of minerals along the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) construction route in 1883. French Catholic priests were already in the vicinity, providing mass for French-Canadian railway workers. The French Ste-Anne-des-Pins parish (also formed in 1883) sat on the elevated northern half of what would become downtown Sudbury. Other French Catholic institutions soon followed the church itself, including the Hôpital St-Joseph and the St-Louis-de-Gonzague school. Further to the northeast in what later became the Flour Mill, the Jesuits opened the Collège Sacré-Coeur. Both institutions played roles in the protests against the Ontario government’s 1912 Regulation 17, which threatened to ban French-language instruction in private schools beyond the second grade. Meanwhile, the south of downtown was dominated by the CPR yards. These were joined by the Canadian National Railway (CN) whose eastern arm followed the eastern border of the Flour Mill, with a roundhouse located at the bend of Agnes Street.
Sudbury’s downtown grew between these sites, including homes, hotels, commercial and institutional buildings, and churches of other denominations. The area immediately surrounding the CN yards became home to the city’s meat and fish markets and took on the name ‘Borgia’ after one of the main streets in the neighbourhood. Thanks to the proximity of francophone institutions, many French-Canadians resided in this area.
As the city’s population grew, French-Canadians moved further northward into an area that would come to be known as the Flour Mill. It was named this due to the six large flour silos that dominate the main thoroughfare built for a long-shuttered flour company. A second Francophone parish—St-Jean-de-Brébeuf—was founded there and the community became majority French-speaking.
Both the Flour Mill and the Borgia areas of Sudbury were considered slum housing. Oftentimes, they were wooden buildings of simple construction. These areas were also considered crowded. This was especially so with the Borgia area, since there was a housing shortage and because of Sudbury’s topography. As the city grew, it had to navigate the large rocky outcroppings that dot the landscape. New developments were then built further afield than what was typical of suburban development elsewhere. Benefiting from increased wages in the mining sector, many residents left the inner-city areas for the burgeoning suburbs.
My own Franco-Ontarian family followed this trajectory. My grandparents met on Agnes Street as teenagers, got married at St-Jean-de-Brébeuf, and had their kids in the Flour Mill. With my grandfather’s well-paying smelter job, however, my grandparents eyed a move to the growing suburban New Sudbury. What is now referred to on maps as Nickeldale was an early 1950s working-class suburb. This area was the first of many new housing developments as New Sudbury grew to the north and east of the city centre. As it expanded, shopping malls and strip mall retail stores rapidly sprung up along the main artery of Lasalle Boulevard, attracting residents from beyond. And Sudbury’s response to the depletion of the inner-city was sadly typical of many cities.
Starting in the early 1960s, Sudbury planners advocated for an urban renewal project for the city centre. Urban renewal in a mid-century context was the replacement of Victorian, industrial city centres with new streamlined developments that segregated commercial from residential uses while banishing industrial sites to the periphery. Commercial life was to be interiorized into massive megastructures and automobility was to be favoured over walking or public transportation.
Given Sudbury’s size, the plans were ambitious. The majority of the northern downtown as well as the lower Flour Mill were demolished. This included the entirety of the Borgia market area as well as the removal of the CN station and train yards. In their place rose a mall and hotel complex dubbed the City Centre with Eaton’s as a flagship store. Opening in 1973, the City Centre was designed with the automobile in mind. Street widening and reconfiguration favoured suburban commuters while interior parking meant visitors never had to set foot on a city street. In the lower Flour Mill, homes were replaced by uninspired public housing purportedly to rehouse the residents who had been displaced by the urban renewal project. Few of the former residents, however, made their way back to the area. The Agnes Street CN roundhouse and much of the tracks were also removed as the company shifted its operations to Capreol outside the city centre.
To date, I have interviewed 12 people (and counting) for my larger thesis project on the Flour Mill neighbourhood. They all lament the loss of Sudbury’s historic inner-city. My father, Daniel Perrin, who left Sudbury in his early 20s, describes “being very bitter when he left.” He continues: “I was really, really disappointed cos Sudbury had an amazing turn-of-the-century, it was, it really was, and it’s just gone … it’s just gone.” My father’s eldest cousin, Diane Perrin-Carlson, agrees: “une chose qui est dommage … quand j’ai agrandi, the downtown was the hub, not anymore.” Whether they still live in Sudbury or not, the pain they feel is palpable both for a downtown they remember from their past, but also for the future of the city. Slightly complicating this narrative is the story of my great aunt Beatrice who worked for years at the Laura Secord store in the City Centre, who loved her work where “elle a se fait des amitiés,” which lasted a lifetime.
The historic Francophone institutions have survived to an extent. Ste-Anne-des-Pins burnt down in 1992. While its replacement is above average for modernist buildings, it sits facing two parking lots and the back of the mall. Associated structures have been lost in the last few decades. The former Hotel St-Joseph was partially demolished and was then converted into a seniors’ retirement home. The St-Louis-de-Gonzague school, while designated, sits vacant and in need of repairs. Despite some efforts to locate the Francophone Collège Boréale either downtown or in the Flour Mill, a site on the Sudbury’s city by-pass was chosen instead.
Mirroring other small cities, Sudbury institutions have begun reinvesting in the city centre. Laurentian University’s School of Architecture was built downtown, incorporating historic CPR buildings on the site. Close by, the Place des Arts du Grand Sudbury opened in 2022. This centre consolidates seven Francophone cultural organizations under one roof. The architecture, its designers say, pays homage to the area’s industrial heritage through its use of materials. While the Place des Arts is an attractive structure that houses excellent work, it nonetheless embraces the types of high culture that one does not associate with a mining community.
Despite these recent signs of life, the downtown remains windswept and dominated by the thoroughfares that effectively whisk you through en route to a destination further afield. Drugs remain an ongoing and evident problem, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Parking lots are pervasive and further evidence of an ongoing appeal to drivers. The City Centre mall has effectively died with much of its interior being taken over by government services and a gym.
So the Sudbury of 2023 is much different than the Sudbury of 1973. Since the opening of the City Centre, mining work has plunged from a high of 50,000 employees to under 5,000. Ancillary industries have likewise suffered. Sudbury now emphasizes health sciences and outdoor recreation. A plan to move the downtown arena to a suburban location is still under discussion. Re-greening efforts have effectively erased much of the industrial landscape. Industrial sites are still torn down with regularity including the Lockerby and Stobie mine headframes and the Copper Cliff iron ore plant. There is discussion over whether to close the CP yards in the south of downtown for commercial development. Meanwhile, forced amalgamations means the city assumes responsibility for additional rural communities. The city is now described by geographer Oiva Saarinen as a ‘constellation city,’ increasingly decentralized and dominated by big box stores and strip malls. Having lost so much of its historic urban centre, what role does a downtown play in an increasingly suburbanized city?
Eliot Perrin is a history PhD candidate at Concordia University. His research interests include deindustrialization, urban history, and public commemoration. He is also the archives coordinator at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.
This post is part of a series titled The Politics of Deindustrialization in Canada, edited by Lauren Laframboise. The authors in this series are affiliated to the Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time (DéPOT) project. DéPOT is hosting its annual conference in June 2023 in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.