Living under the shadow of the nickel giant

Ian Austen October 18 1982

Living under the shadow of the nickel giant

Ian Austen October 18 1982

Living under the shadow of the nickel giant


Ian Austen

It is not the image most people have of Sudbury: bottomless bottles of Cognac, champagne and French liqueur served up to 200 holders of $100-a-seat theatre tickets. But the grand opening of the city’s $2.2-million theatre centre last month was not without a certain irony. When the curtain rose officially for the first time, it revealed a mob of 55 local children lamenting, in song, their meagre allotment of workhouse gruel. When the final curtain fell on the musical version of Oliver Twist, and the gushing speeches from the theatre’s founders and politicians drew to an end, the gowned, tuxedoed, kilted and fur-draped leaders of Sudbury society squeezed back into the theatre’s bar. In the festive buzz of the party, the participants cheered Morey Speigel, owner of a local construction company, as he mounted a wobbly table and toasted the centre. But when he alluded to the people in Sudbury, “who are not as happy as us tonight,” his words were largely lost in the din of tinkling glass and chatter.

For Jim and Sharon Dixon, however, feeding children is much more than a theme for a tune in a Broadway musical. In his modest house near a small lake east of the theatre, Jim ran his hands over the table he built to accommodate I

his seven children and talked—with a hint of embarrassment—about how he has had to rely on help from neighbors to feed his family since Inco shut down in May. While his children poured in the front door—some carried scaled-down miners’ lunch buckets—Jim recalled that life was particularly tight late this summer before his weekly UIC benefits of $210 started. “A neighbor said that for a while we were surviving on macaroni and tomato juice,” the brakeman for the nickel giant’s private railway said softly. “I guess she wasn’t far off.”

Sudbury has gone through more than its share of hard times, though a visitor would not know it just from driving into town. In the suburbs the highways are lined with the usual neon strips, plazas, burger joints and shopping malls. The steel skeleton of a flying saucer-shaped science centre scheduled to open next year sits outside the city’s centre. At least five new chrome-and-glass office complexes soar above the trafficsnarled downtown.

Despite the gleam of growth and a population of 156,000, Sudbury remains a ward of Inco. The most dramatic reminder of the city’s dependency is during strikes. In the fall of 1978, the steelworkers walked out, and the sulphurous fumes from the company’s smokestacks were gone until the following summer. That strike took a heavy toll. Families

were split up as men left town in search of jobs, and merchants reeled from the $120-million wage loss.

But a recession is much quieter and, for many, even more frightening than a strike. At least, labor strife makes itself known, as it did last June when Inco workers walked out. Arson was suspected, though never proven, when the Copper Cliff Curling Club, located in the shadow of Inco’s giant smelter, was burned to the ground. Angry strikers made the smelter and mine sites targets for petty vandalism. By the end of the month the strike was settled with few gains, but the 10,000 workers were all laid off. So the jobless workers—they made up a third of the city’s work force—became almost invisible. Even the financial aspects of a recession are more indirect; $210 a week may not be

much support for a family, but it is better than $40 a week in strike pay.

For now, the lineups remain at Loblaws in the new Supermall, where the overwhelming concern is the uncertainty. No matter how long the previous strikes lasted, everyone knew that at some point they would end. This time, no one knows. Says Inco worker Mike Walker: “It’s a town living on hope.”

But hope is rare in the modest downtown home of Walker’s friend and coworker, Richard Mohns. Instead, the articulate 25-year-old smelter worker is seething with frustration. It is a frustration that shows in the way he repeatedly pounds a Bic lighter on the Formica table while recounting events since the layoff. After the 1978-’79 shutdown Mohns returned to Inco from a job that he had taken in southern Ontario. “They put their arm around my shoulder and said, ‘Twenty-two years old, married, family started—you’re just the person we want. We want people who will put down roots.’ ” But Inco’s assurances turned sour in August. Already on temporary layoff, Mohns, Walker and 1,048 other hourly workers were told that their jobs would disappear come January. That has made a bad situation even worse. Mohns talks about the time his six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son came to him “all bright and smiling” about an invitation they had received to a birthday party. He had to tell them they could not go, because there was no money to buy gifts. “That’s tough, that’s really tough,” Mohns sighs.

For a while, at least, there is not much the families can do. Get another job in Sudbury? The few non-mining firms are not hiring or are cutting back. Leave the city? Unlike the days of the major layoffs in 1977, there are no booming Alberta options.

Despite losing his job, Mohns vows he is staying: “I rolled over in ’79. I’m not doing that again. I’m staying and fighting this thing to the bitter end.” It is a daunting challenge, but there are others who share the sentiment. Last August, in the dingy corridors of the Steelworkers Hall, Walker, Mohns and another laid-off smelter worker, Harvey Dearing, formed a committee. Working from a tiny smoke-filled storeroom in the hall, they set out to gather all the laid-off workers together and turn them into what Dearing calls “a force to be reckoned with.” Commitment and passion aside, the organizers are playing against a stacked deck. Their lack of funds has made it difficult even to distribute a questionnaire. “We had a fellow come in here two weeks ago, nearly in tears, to tell us he didn’t have enough money that day to feed his family,” Mohns recalls. “That gave me a big lump right here in my throat. But we didn’t

have anything to give him. ”

While it might seem strange to southern outsiders, who often assume life in Sudbury is the next best thing to a stint in prison, many of the laid-off workers maintain a striking loyalty to their city. The negative impression held by many out-of-towners usually dates back to the city’s greatest public relations nightmare. During the early days of the space race, television screens around the world were filled with pictures of moon-bound U.S. astronauts training on the barren rock terrain and slag heaps of Sudbury’s west end. But the wasteland is only a portion of the region. Sudbury is not so much a single city as a core area ringed by about 20 smaller communities. In between those to the north and east lie dense forest and numerous lakes. In some parts of the city, residents sometimes look out of their kitchen windows to see bear and moose. Cottages—camps, as they are known in the Ontario north—are often within commuting distance.

But the pride many residents feel for their city is frequently countered by a long-lasting bitterness toward its corporate master. Says Richard Pharand, QC, head of a prosperous law firm and a director of the city’s United Way fund: “Inco. I hate that company. I wish it would go bankrupt.” Pharand’s hatred stems from the “racist” way he says Inco treated French-Canadians such as his father, a miner for 34 years. In the era when immigrants provided much of the manpower for Inco’s plants and mines, work crews were divided into ethnic groups. Thus, whenever supervisors wanted to boost production they would approach a French-Canadian work team, for example, and goad them with the news—real or illusory—that the Italians were besting their output.

Memories such as Pharand’s also echo on the streets of Copper Cliff, the hub of Inco’s operations and a company town up until 1973. A retired Inco worker points up the hill that rises above the town to the Copper Cliff Club and recalls the days when Italians were not allowed to step within its doors. Another recalls accounts of Inco goons beating a union organizer’s face with a typewriter in 1942 as if the incident happened last week.

These tales are now part of local oral history, but another part of the company’s legacy, its environmental ravages, are present for all to see, smell and taste. When Inco photographers take aerial publicity shots of the grimy, 50year-old smelter complex, they like to show the gardens and playing fields of Nickel Park in the foreground. Ironically, it was here that the mass environmental destruction got its start. At the turn of the century, and until the opening of the mechanical smelter, heaps of raw ore were roasted on open-

sites. Dense clouds of sulphur dioxide blew off the piles, creating the barren wasteland that was to become NASA’s training ground in later years. Today, even with the so-called super stack— which spews large volumes of acid rain-producing gas over vast areas of the province—the acrid taste of sulphur still lingers in the mouths of the city’s dwellers.

Although his modest office adjacent to the smelter gives little indication of his rank, Winton Newman, the president of the company’s Ontario division, is the most senior Inco official in Sud1 bury. Newman readily admits that the bitterness exists. But the real villain, he claims, is not Inco. Rather, it is the depressed world economy and increased competition in world nickel markets.

But, despite the often bitter taste of dependence, many Sudbury residents are loyal and even protective about Inco. While the city has paid the price of sour air, lost lives—117 at Inco since 1950—social strife and a twisted economy, the mother lode of nickel has produced years of growth. Many times the grey metal has pulled the community back from the brink of collapse. In the past, those who suggested King Nickel’s time as ruler was coming to an end did so at their peril. For the past few years,

Unemployment and Immigration’s district economist, Mel Soucie, has been one of them. On a table in his office is a cartoonist’s rendering of a Chamber of Commerce head table. To the right of the speaker is a gagged man bound in chains who is labelled with Soucie’s job title. “You have some funny people here,” Soucie says, “They’re thin-skinned and feel something is wrong with being a realist.”

But, as the shutdown drags on, some of Soucie’s critics seem to be softening. Pharand smiles when asked about them: “The reactionary businessman— let’s say he isn’t so reactionary anymore. The writing’s always been on the wall, but I guess they didn’t see it until

now.” Today many people in Sudbury are looking beyond Canada to the other nickel operations that have eroded Inco’s grip on the industry. In many countries they see state-owned mines selling nickel at a loss but keeping their employees on the job. That is giving new momentum to an old cause: the nationalization of Inco. Says Norris Valiquette, a gruff man who left the smelter to become vice-president of the steelworkers’ local: “The countries who run their own nickel operations are looking after their peo-1 pie and their interests first. To survive, we’ve got to come just as hardline on this as them.” The idea even has tentative support from an unlikely ally, Jim Gordon, a former mayor turned Tory MPP. Last month Gordon called for an inquiry into the future plans of Inco and Falconbridge, which would “examine whether the time has come to take over the industry at fair market value.”

The economic and political arguments about the merits of nationalization could—and may well—go on for years. In the meantime, Jim Dixon and thousands of others will continue to pass more idle days wondering when the slowdown will finally reach its end. <£>