Mining has dominated Sudbury’s economy for much of its history, starting with the discovery of nickel and copper in 1883, during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In the past, the city was dominated by two miners, Inco and Falconbridge. Those companies have since been swallowed up by foreign companies, and are now part of Vale and Glencore, respectively, and direct mining jobs have declined. From about 26,000 people employed in mining in the early 1970s, only about 6,000 in the city work for mining companies in the city of 160,000 today.
Despite that, and the fact that the price of nickel has wallowed at under US$7 per lb. for several years now, Sudbury – the home of the “Big Nickel” – is thriving.
The city has done that, not by moving away from mining, but by leveraging its collective expertise in all aspects of mining – mining equipment and services, mining R&D, environmental and water management. In doing so, Sudbury has transformed itself from a mining town into a hub of mining innovation.
The transformation over the last 20 years or so has been due to intentional and continual efforts by small and medium-sized service and equipment suppliers to join together and leverage their expertise to branch out globally. Leadership by Dick DeStefano of the Sudbury Area Mining Supply and Service Association, and others have been instrumental to those efforts, as has support and leadership from the city of Sudbury’s economic development arm.
While there are fewer direct mining jobs in Sudbury, the city’s mining service sector now employs 10,000.
The Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI), established in 2007, has provided a vital link between SMEs, mining companies and Laurentian University to ensure innovative new technologies bridge the “commercialization gap” and actually get into mining companies’ hands.
With this support, the service sector has proven to be innovative solution providers – and in the process, have successfully widened their base of customers from essentially two local entities a few decades ago to a global base, says Ian Wood, director of economic development for the city of Greater Sudbury.
“We’ve got some companies that are seeing the majority of their markets now outside the country,” Wood says.
It must be said that, although centred in Sudbury, the mining innovation cluster extends across several northern Ontario cities – North Bay and Timmins in particular – that also host successful SMEs, in addition to numerous mines.
Laurentian University has also become a leader in mining research. Starting with a push by former Laurentian president Dominic Giroux (now CEO of Sudbury’s Health Sciences North), along with academic leadership at the university, a strong relationship with industry has been forged.
The university’s outreach to the mining sector has helped it build its reputation for research, attract new talent, and has resulted in tens of millions in donations from mining magnates and their families.
As Sudbury continues to fire on all cylinders, the entire industry will be watching to see how Sudbury can continue to turn nickel into gold.