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Sudbury cluster shouldn’t have happened

Mining sprawls. It is the nature of the beast. The way that metal production sprawls about the globe isn’t terribly convenient for human beings. We tend to like shorelines with lots of vegetation.

Mining sprawls. It is the nature of the beast. The way that metal production sprawls about the globe isn’t terribly convenient for human beings. We tend to like shorelines with lots of vegetation. Metals tend to appear in rocks that are exposed in mountains or shield formations that are not terribly accessible. Metal deposits in places people wanted to live were the first to be exploited and the first to be depleted. The result is that miners and geologists tend to be found in remote locations.

Equipment manufacturing tends to collect in population centers. The “man” in manufacturing refers to hands, and hands go with people, and people tend to live on coastlines where temperatures are moder­ate, good soils are common and transportation is cheap.

Sudbury is an anomaly. The city was just a big mining town, far from any coastline. It faced enormous competition. Toronto had already established itself as the world’s capital for mining finance. Manufacturing of all sorts was concentrated in southern Ontario. Exploration was centered in Vancouver. Somehow, Sudbury became Canada’s third mining cluster, able to claim the largest concentration of mining expertise in the world. It shouldn’t have happened.

The city enjoyed a lucky combination of timing and location. It was remote enough to make importing supplies and services costly and, at the same time, the mines were big enough to supply and service much of what they needed onsite. The combination turned a large mining outpost into a real city.

When Inco and Falconbridge, downsized in the ’70s they began to go outside their own gates for equipment and supplies. They ended up buying from ex-employees who set up their shops in the city. If the highway to Toronto had been four-laned in 1980, the mining supply cluster in the city might have withered. Instead, it prospered, until now it ships across Canada and around the world.

What is remarkable is the way this unlikely cluster has taken off. In 2002, it was flying completely below the radar for Industry Canada. The Ministry of Northern Development and Mines actually argued that there was no mining cluster in Northern Ontario.

Others looked more closely. Publisher Michael Atkins saw what many government officials could not see when he wrote “Sudbury and Northern Ontario are home to an astonishing number of international mining supply and mining service companies. Drills and material handling systems have been designed in Sudbury, Ontario for missions to Mars. We are home to world-class research and development institutions. Sudbury, Ontario has earned an international reputation for environmental rehabilitation. Sudbury, Ontario has achieved a critical mass of mining knowledge and mining expertise that are in demand internationally.”

Once that critical mass was achieved, growth accelerated. In 2003, the Sudbury Area Mining Supply and Services Association (SAMSSA) formed to promote local firms. The association and the local industry grew steadily. By 2010, Ottawa-based Doyletech Corp. estimated the annual output of the local mining supply and services sector had reached $5.6 billion - more than the value of the nation’s entire nickel output.

Growth wasn’t limited to direct producers of goods and service. The region’s ability to supply the mining sector with research, training and technology has expanded. In 2003, there were already 13 mining research organizations of varying sizes in Sudbury, including a branch of CAMIRO, the Canadian Mining Industry Research Organization. In 2006, industry and government created the Centre of Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI). In 2012, the family of Stan Bharti, chair and CEO of merchant bank Forbes & Manhattan, invested $10 million in the university’s engineering school. The school was promptly renamed the Bharti School of Engineering and in 2013 it attracted $1.25 million form IAMGOLD to create Canada’s first research chair in open-pit mining. Ned Goodman, CEO of Dundee Corporation, and The Goodman Family Foundation - JODAMADA, made a major donation to create the Goodman School of Mines.

Suppliers and researchers and educational institutions are all part of the mining supply chain. The mines themselves will always be scattered to the far corners of the globe, but in Sudbury the industry will find a growing concentration of the skills, tools and knowledge it needs for its sprawling activities.