Sudbury – The Republic of Nickel (Part 3 of 4) – Stan Sudol

The decade ended with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the community in June 1939. It was the first time a reigning British monarch had ever visited Canada, let alone Sudbury. Precedence was broken by allowing the Queen, the first women ever to go underground at the Frood Mine. Traditionally miners thought women would bring bad luck if they were allowed underground. There were a few miners who probably thought the beginning of the Second World War was a result of her visit.

Second World War

Shortly after the second world war started, nickel was one of the first metals to require government allocation. Non-essential use of this strategic material was banned which included most of International Nickel’s civilian markets.

Labour shortages were a constant struggle requiring the company to hire women in its surface operations for the first time in history. Over 1,400 women were hired in production and maintenance jobs for the duration of the war at the Sudbury operations and the Port Colborne refinery.

The labour shortages also finally allowed a permanent union to be established. Inco’s nickel operations were well known to have an extensive system of anti-union spies who ensured any person discussing organization activities would be quickly fired.

The Mine Mill union also faced considerable opposition from the company sponsored union nicknamed “nickel rash”, the church, police, and the local media. Strong determination by union organizers spearheaded by Bob Carlin and a fair certification vote ordered by the Provincial Department of Labour ensured that Mine Mill Local 598 was officially certified to represent the workers at International Nickel and Falconbridge in early 1944.

On a visit to Sudbury to promote the victory loan campaign in February 1942, the Hon. C.D. Howe, Canada’s famous minister of munitions and supplies, said, “Those of you who live in Sudbury and are employed by one of your nickel companies need not feel that you are not taking part in this war. … But I can say this, that if anything should happen to interrupt the production of nickel in the city of Sudbury, the whole character of the war will be changed. I know of no important munition of war that doesn’t have a nickel content.”

In total, about 95 per cent of all Allied demands for nickel came from the Sudbury Basin. From 1939 to 1945, International Nickel delivered to the Allied countries 1.5 billion pounds of nickel, 1.75 billion pounds of copper and over 1.8 million ounces of platinum metals. The tonnage of ore mined during the war years equaled the production of the company and its predecessors during the previous 54 years of their existence.

There was a decrease in nickel consumption immediately after the war. The rebuilding of the world’s devastated economies, pent-up civilian demand for nickel containing products and the military build up during the Korean War and following cold war hostilities, ensured exploding demand for this strategic metal.

A 1954 U.S. Department of Defense report stated that nickel was, “the closest to being a true ‘war metal.’ It deserves first priority among materials receiving conservation attention.” At that time 90% of non-communist nickel was being supplied by the Sudbury mines.

Labour Battles During the Cold War

During the 1950s and 1960s, Mine Mill Local 598 was the largest union local on the continent. The union did include communists at a time when the cold war between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R was at its peak. The effects of Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist hysteria would spill over into the Canadian labour movement. Mine Mill Local 598 union leaders would not publicly disassociate themselves from known communists and were suspended by the Canadian Congress of Labour in 1949. Their jurisdiction was granted to the Steelworkers in 1950.

For the next twelve years inter-union battles were fought in Sudbury culminating in a final union vote between February 27 and March 2 1962. The Steelworkers won by a very close vote and after an appeal by Mine Mill failed, Local 6500 was finally certified in November 1962. Falconbridge workers stayed with Mine Mill.

Sudbury geographic location made the community a major transit point between eastern and western Canada. Conditions in the mines were tough while housing shortages for much of the booming 1950s and 1960s ensured that there would be a high labour turnover in this isolated frontier community. The city was also the jumping off point for furtrappers, lumbermen and prospectors.

Thousands of single men with good paychecks made Sudbury a magnet for con artists, prostitutes, gambling, illicit booze, and drugs. As Maclean journalist Don Delaplante wrote in a 1951 profile of the city, “Sudbury is a lusty, chest-thumping, nonsleeping and rather wicked melting pot of both mankind and ore…” The old Borgia Street in the central core – long gone with urban renewal – was reputed to be among the toughest neighbourhoods in Canada.

From 1951 to 1961 the population of the town of Sudbury effectively doubled from 42,000 to 80,000. In the following decade an additional 10,000 were added to the population. The pressures on infrastructure and housing were enormous.

In the early sixties, housing was in such short supply that many who came to Sudbury could not stay. In 1962, the Sudbury Canada Manpower centre, which provided about 40 per cent of the average of 500 persons who were hired each month by International Nickel, reported that 80 per cent of new employees left within six months and that a quarter of these did so because of housing shortages.

Stompin Tom Connors and Sudbury’s Rough and Tough Image

Stompin Tom Connors, one of Canada’s most famous folk singers immortalized Sudbury’s rough and tough image when he released the “Sudbury Saturday Night” song in 1969.

The girls are out to Bingo and the boys are gettin’ stinko,
And we think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday night….

…We’ll drink the loot we borrowed and recuperate tomorrow,
‘Cause everything is wonderful tonight, we had a good fight,
We ate the Dilly Pickle and we forgot about the Nickel,
And everybody’s tickled, for it’s Saturday tonight …

That enduring rowdy image still haunts the city, much to the consternation of local public relations people. The Sudbury of today has become a more diversified, family oriented city with a large managerial workforce not much different from Barrie, Kingston or Oshawa. A wide variety of cultural activities include theatre, symphony and a strong French language arts community. Outside of Quebec and Ottawa, Sudbury has the largest Francophone community in the country and is one of the locations of two French teachers colleges in Ontario.

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based excutive speech writer and communications consultant who writes extensively on mining issues. He can be reached at stan.sudol@republicofmining.com

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