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Wood, rock, and rails have, as Donald Dennie tells us, provided important settings for the human history of today’s Greater Sudbury. Readers of this work, the first full-length history of the region written in French, learn something of each factor; but they will encounter more of the human factors that were at work. Dennie’s interest in class conflict and entrepreneurial roles adds useful insights into the “Nickel Belt,” revealing it as much more than a mining region. The interplay of forest, field, mine, and urban commerce offers much to readers unfamiliar with the region.
That said, Une histoire sociale du Grand Sudbury is often familiar for the minority who have followed regional historical literature more closely. Longstanding historical indifference was punctuated only by a few popular histories and amateur local works. Matters improved in the 1970s, when Gilbert Stelter was at Laurentian University; his articles and those of his students raised standards for Nickel Belt history. Several generations of graduate students followed, investigating elements of regional history from business to politics to pollution to its varied populations. The centennial of Sudbury achieving town status saw new book-length publications. Dennie himself offered À l’ombre de l’INCO, which focused on the region’s francophones.
Dennie mines these works and many more; while his citations are (perhaps for reasons of space?) basic, his bibliography is wide ranging. There are some curious absences—several doctoral theses, both recent and the first thesis to attempt an overview of the region’s early history, are not cited. Perhaps noting these gaps is to quibble—Dennie clearly has long experience assessing the historical evolution of Greater Sudbury.
Other issues seem more important. An overview of the region should offer a significant discussion of the First Nations’ long history in the region. Fur trade histories and work on the Robinson Huron Treaty offer insights—Indian Affairs records offer another entry. But Dennie offers only passing comment (11–13). Even the notorious sale of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek (Whitefish Lake) timber late in the nineteenth century receives no attention. While this book is a regional overview, in an era of recognition and reconciliation such cursory comment is insufficient.
Beyond commenting on what is not in Dennie’s book, one can note that his long-established interest in the area’s Franco-Ontarians, notably in the once-agriculture sector termed “The Valley,” results in a somewhat uneven coverage of the region. Perhaps this imbalance is inevitable, as scholars are more comfortable writing about what is most familiar. Here, readers anticipating a “regional” coverage will find little about various parts of the Nickel Belt, especially its southwestern periphery, points north beyond the “Valley” and points east/southeast. One finds few references to centres like Cartier, Wahnapitae, or Whitefish, or, indeed, most of the mining centres. All much diminished now, they nevertheless served as useful “central places” for residents in the era preceding convenient automobile travel. That is not to say that Dennie is unaware of these places, but regional studies are best served when featuring geographic balance. Clearly this task in challenging: or even confusing—Saarinen’s recent regional coverage (2013) can disconcert through its valiant efforts to “look everywhere.”
Tension between detail and overall coverage also emerges in dealing with social history. Dennie offers good coverage of francophone populations and adds useful social class analysis. That discussion also balances earlier tales of “entrepreneurial vigour” by pointing out the important, very pro-business role of the state in exploiting the various resources of the region. Timber, minerals, and even agriculture were “boosted” by state infrastructures and economic support; as the local mining economy grew, the state also sided with the mining firms when farmers tried to protect their livelihood. Earlier works feature economic “progress,” ignoring the often-severe tensions between businesses and local workers and farmers. Here, workplace confrontations, as well as struggles between agricultural and mining economies, get sound discussion. A succinct history of unionization at the nickel mines (even if very light on pre-1945 failures) is a welcome feature, although Dennie seems sympathetic to “Mine Mill’s” confrontations with the United Steelworkers.
If balance raises occasional eyebrows, so too do details. Inevitably, brief overviews sacrifice specifics, but that means what one does conclude matter even more. Take ethnic organizations—Dennie rightly notes the roles of many such groups, from British to Eastern European, Finnish, and more. French-Canadian organizations and activities get the lion’s share of attention, and there is much to be garnered from that material. However, in dealing with other ethnic populations, the (necessary) generalizations often counter conclusions found in the increasingly numerous studies of religious, economic, and cultural organizations. Here we still find “radical” Finnish immigrants, likely reflecting use of the badly dated Cold War–era M.A. thesis by Martha Allen that celebrated church and criticized the “Left.” More recent works, some listed in Dennie’s Bibliography, reveal a complex combination of Finns with Socialist, Social Democratic, Conservative, and even pragmatic stances. Similarly, more use of recent work on Ukrainians and other ethnic groups would enhance the discussion of social organization as a factor in regional growth.
Once again, it is important to balance concerns with praise—as with social class, Dennie does well outlining and evaluating the evolution of the region from a hodgepodge combination of towns, villages, mining sites, and rural setting into a formal, organized region. This tale of centralization, of control shifting to Sudbury is well told. Dennie effectively parallels the rise of urban dominance with the rise of monopoly control in the nickel industry; his coverage of the 1920s merger that made INCO the global nickel firm is especially clear. Where in 1900 one found pretenders for leadership of the Nickel Belt, by 1930 Sudbury was well placed, not least because INCO grew weary of housing its workers. Regionalization in 1972, mandated from Toronto, was “icing on the cake,” confirming Sudbury’s domination. Given the passage of nearly a half-century since 1972, one hoped for more on the steps leading to “Greater Sudbury” as depicted by the book’s last map (354). Unfortunately there is only passing reference to the emergence of that quite different, more southern, and geographically sprawling community. Having taken Dennie to task for elements not covered, it seems only fair to note that offering the history of this complex, modern half-century represents a task of herculean proportions requiring a larger volume.
The comparative brevity of Une histoire sociale has, as revealed here, consequences, but it also serves readers with an interest, but not a passion for Sudbury-area history. Academics may wish the tale was told in more depth, but there is much to praise in Dennie’s work. Small quibbles—why have an antiquarian list of township name origins?—are inevitable, but there are also small elements to praise, like photographs published from private collections that add interest (e.g., Blezard Mine, 1890, 73). Comparatively extended discussion of women entering the mineral workforce during World War II is another moment of real interest to any reader.
In the end, Une histoire sociale can be challenged; nevertheless, this readable, many-faceted history of the “Nickel Capital of the World” is a welcome French-language addition to the literature. High time: francophones played crucial roles in Nickel Belt history, a history relevant to anyone interested in Canadian, resource-sector, or ethnic histories. Criticisms notwithstanding, Donald Dennie’s work is well worth reading and considering.
D.M. LeBourdais, Sudbury Basin: The Story of Nickel (Toronto: Ryerson, 1953); Charles Dorion, The First 75 Years: A Headline History of Sudbury, Canada (Ilfracombe: Arthur H. Stockwell, 1958).
Graeme Mount, Sudbury Region: An Illustrated History (Burlington: Windsor Publications, 1986); C.M. Wallace and A. Thomson, eds., Sudbury: Rail Town to Regional Capital (Toronto: Dundurn, 1993).
Donald Dennie, A L’Ombre de l’INCO: Étude de la transition d’une communauté Canadienne-française de la region de Sudbury (1890–1972) (Ottawa: Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa, 2001).
Oiva Saarinen, From Meteorite Impact to Constellation City: A Historical Geography of Greater Sudbury (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013).
Martha Allen, “A Survey of Finnish Cultural, Economic, and Political Development in the Sudbury District of Ontario” (M.A. thesis, University of Western Ontario, 1954).