Was the amalgamation of Sudbury a mistake?

Twenty years later, residents and politicians continue to debate whether creating the City of Greater Sudbury was a good idea
By Nick Dunne - Published on Jan 26, 2021
Jim Gordon, who in 2000 became the City of Greater Sudbury’s first mayor, remains a steadfast supporter of amalgamation. (Nick Dunne)

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SUDBURY — As both a Sudbury mayor and an MPP, Jim Gordon was there for a number of pivotal moments in his region’s history. There was the 265-day Inco labour strike in 1978 and 1979 — then Canada’s longest — amid the early days of the mining industry’s push for automation. The broader initiatives to diversify the local economy. Internationally recognized efforts by Gordon and others to clean up an environment that had been devastated by 70 years of industrial pollution. But at least one decision he advocated for remains a source of debate to this day: amalgamation.

“We had to be that way,” says Gordon, who, in 2000, became the City of Greater Sudbury’s first mayor and is still a steadfast supporter of amalgamation. The move he endorsed saw the seven municipalities of the Regional Municipality of Sudbury (as well as the regional municipality itself) rolled into one entity home to 161,000 people and spanning 3,228 square kilometres — larger than Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton combined. “If we had a larger population called Sudbury, we would have more influence in the corridors of power at Queen's Park and federally,” Gordon says, explaining his thinking around the time of amalgamation 20 years ago.

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The main push for change, however, came from then-premier Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government, which had created the Savings and Municipal Restructuring Act of 1996 and the Fewer Politicians Act of 1999 — and amalgamated many towns and cities, including Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, and Chatham-Kent. The aim was to reduce the duplication of services: city staff, police, firefighters, and more would be overseen by one city, instead of having separate departments across several smaller municipalities. In theory, approvals and project development would be easier.

Prior to the Sudbury area’s amalgamation, there were 54 councillors across seven municipalities: Sudbury, Nickel Centre, Valley East, Capreol, Rayside-Balfour, Onaping Falls, and Walden. Each municipality’s mayor served as a councillor for the Regional Municipality of Sudbury, an upper-tier municipality that oversaw regional roads, building permits, social services, the health unit, tourism, and other services of a regional scope. Post-amalgamation, 12 councillors and a mayor represented the same area.

Around the time of the reduction, reports from the city suggested that amalgamation would result in savings of up to $13 million annually; a KPMG audit conducted for the province estimated that expenditures would decline by $8 million to $9 million.

But, according to a 2016 Northern Policy Institute report, while general government costs from both the chief-administrative and clerk’s offices saw some savings, the cost of all services (except street lighting) markedly increased after 2001. The report concludes that “any changes in total municipal expenditures that resulted from amalgamation appear to have been negligible.”

a map of Sudbury's wards
Map showing the original wards in the City of Greater Sudbury. (Report to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing on Local Government Reform for Sudbury)

Andrew Sancton, a municipal-politics professor at Western University, agrees that major savings never materialized. Salaries for staff in smaller towns went up to match Sudbury’s, he says, and service levels and infrastructure quality had to be matched, too: “As a cost-saving mechanism, I don't know anybody who claims that it's been a big success.” And Sudbury’s sprawling geography, Sancton notes, can make governing more challenging. “Although [the surrounding towns] were clearly in Sudbury’s orbit, they were closer to being more freestanding urban areas,” he explains. “And that might make the politics of the amalgamated city of Sudbury more complicated than in some of the other places.”

Many residents continue to express doubts about the move, saying they feel their communities have lost resources and autonomy. “I often joke my community is bilingual: first language Finnish, second language English,” says Ward 2 councillor Michael Vagnini, whose 797-square-kilometre constituency stretches from Copper Cliff to Whitefish. “My constituents aren’t happy. They feel that they lacked the services that they had in the past.”

In 2019, Vagnini presented a motion requesting that city services be decentralized: it was defeated by a vote of eight to four. “At the time of amalgamation, Valley East was just becoming a city with, I think, a population of 33,000. Then you have the rural areas like Beaver Lake, Whitefish — all these small little communities that kind of look after themselves,” says Vagnini. He believes that letting rural enclaves enact bylaws and offer local services would allow them to better meet their communities’ needs; regional services, he notes, could still be delivered through an upper-tier council.

According to Ward 4 councillor Geoff McCausland — whose ward encompasses the hipster hangout of Kathleen Street, such suburbs as Azilda, and century-old family farms — amalgamation has also led to the downtown being deprioritized in favour of suburban and rural areas. He points to the previous council’s support for building the Kingsway Entertainment District in an undeveloped segment of the city’s west end, rather than renovating the existing downtown facility. McCausland, who sits on the downtown BIA board, believes opposition to the downtown renovation stems in part from lingering frustration about amalgamation. “They lost their identity, and they felt that they had everything they needed. They don’t need this urban downtown, and the fact that now their resources and their tax contributions are going there upsets a lot of people.” (A staff report looking, in part, at potential alternative locations is expected to go before council by the end of June.) 

Although McCausland stresses that, as a municipal councillor, he must consider the city as a whole, he calls the west-end plan “a very bad idea” and has motioned reviews of various downtown-arena renovations. “The truth is, there are no healthy cities that do not have healthy downtowns,” he says. However, like Vagnini, he also understands the frustration of his rural constituents. “When I knocked door to door in Rayside-Balfour, there were people who were visibly, tangibly, positively upset and angry. Some people were shaking while they were telling me about amalgamation,” he says. “And, frankly, they deserve an apology.”

Mayor Brian Bigger acknowledges that weighing competing interests can be a challenge but says he’s still confident amalgamation was the right move. “Some of the greatest decisions that were ever made by leaders in our community were done at a regional level,” he says, citing, for example, those related to water treatment for far-flung towns such as Levack and Onaping, which — until Walkerton’s water crisis — relied on the local mining companies for the service. “Without a regional investment, without a City of Greater Sudbury, the investment of $23 million in a water-treatment system for 2,000 residents would have been very challenging,” Bigger says.

In Gordon’s view, amalgamation was a necessary step. “You'll hear people who know the history of the north — they'll tell you who got the profits from all this mining …  it was the people on Bay Street, not the people in northern Ontario,” he says. “It comes down to this: a municipality cannot exist in any viable way unless they have sufficient money to pay the bills.”

McCausland also feels that amalgamation has ultimately helped the city. “Everybody was figuring it out by the seat of their pants, and I'm sure a lot of people were hurt by the whole process,” he says. “But things are coming together, and that's 20 years of work, 20 years of change. Now we can actually start to see what Greater Sudbury can be.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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