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“Hard Rock Town” to “City of Lakes”: the place of industrial heritage amidst environmental reclamation in Sudbury, Ontario

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In July 2020, the Brazilian mining corporation Vale Inc. began the work of demolishing the Superstack, once the world’s tallest smokestack and a landmark that loomed over the city of Sudbury, Ontario for almost five decades. Considered a feat of engineering at the time of its construction, the smokestack propelled the exhaust from the massive Copper Cliff Smelter into the upper atmosphere, improving the air quality for Sudbury residents while dispersing the pollutants to other parts of the world. Despite recognition of the structure’s importance to the community and mining history, the demolition of the Superstack has sparked little in the way of protest or opposition. Rather, this was yet another instance of what Jackie Clarke identifies as the accepted inevitability of the erasure of working-class life and the structures that housed it. Sitting adjacent to one of the world’s largest nickel deposits, Sudbury remains rich in industrial heritage, both active and abandoned. Despite this, the city has remained ambivalent at best over its mining history. Little is done to emphasize this past and present. Local museums are dedicated to pioneer pasts similar in a manner similar to what Ian McKay describes in his studies of “the Folk” in rural Nova Scotia. The rediscovery of industrial ruins are treated as public health hazards to be neutralized quickly with little consideration of their potential historic meaning. This tendency reflects the environmental preoccupations of the municipal government over the preceding four decades. Since the 1980s, the city has embarked on an ambitious regreening program aimed at remediating the soil and the planting of flora. Internationally lauded, the program meshes well with the city’s move towards employment geared around education and technology. In the context of climate change, the regreening efforts are seen as a welcome development by many. They also bolster the area’s tourism campaigns that emphasize outdoor recreation and natural attractions. Sustainability, in this case, takes on decisively post-industrial connotations. The triumphalism of regreening efforts and ecotourism leave little room for an industrial past, present or future. They also obscure the fact that Sudbury remains a heavily polluted place as evidenced by the cancer rates and large swaths of land remaining inhabitable to any species, evidence of what Sherry Lee Linkon and Rob Nixon identify respectively as the “half-life of deindustrialization” and “slow violence of the poor”. Evidence of this can also be found in the inner-city neighbourhoods who suffer from unemployment, drug abuse and suicide, a precariousness that mirrors the industrial ruins that surround them. This paper traces the dichotomy between regreening and industrial work with regards to Sudbury’s past, present and future through the viewpoints of local media, the municipal government, and residents themselves. It traces Sudbury’s semi-successful pivot away from the moniker of “Hard Rock Town” to that of “City of Lakes”. It is only semi-successful because politicians and residents are forced to grapple with an enduring industrial legacy. Furthermore, the erasure of industrial heritage and the post-industrial imagery used to market the city occur despite the area remaining a centre of mining activity. Thanks to widespread automation, comparatively few people work underground. However, the mines themselves remain rich in nickel deposits and extraction should continue unabated for decades to come. In addition, communities close to Sudbury are seeing a rebound in mining activity thanks to the global demand for metals and minerals such as cobalt, lithium and zinc, giving rise to the question as to whether the region can even be considered post-industrial. A study of Sudbury’s discourse over environmental reclamation will contribute to the growing body of work on deindustrialization and industrial heritage situated in peripheral regions. Still understudied, peripheral regions sit at important axes of historical inquiry with regards to environmentalism, working-class culture, industry and deindustrialization, and settler colonialism. Despite their small populations they retain a disproportionate amount of industrial heritage threatened by the political and economic aftershocks of deindustrialization.

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