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Brazilian student Claus Souza says he loves the Laurentian campus and wants to stay in Sudbury - if there's good work to be found. While the university has been successful in luring more and more foreign students, keeping them in the city after they graduate is another story. (Gino Donato for The Globe and Mail)
Brazilian student Claus Souza says he loves the Laurentian campus and wants to stay in Sudbury - if there's good work to be found. While the university has been successful in luring more and more foreign students, keeping them in the city after they graduate is another story. (Gino Donato for The Globe and Mail)

Test Drive: Ontario

Why Sudbury is an unlikely magnet for global education Add to ...

This is the first story in a four-part series on how provincial policies are playing out on the ground.

Peter Luk admits it's not an easy sell.

Twice a year, the dean of Laurentian University's management program travels to China in an attempt to persuade students and their families that Sudbury is the place for them. For most, Canada ranks below several other countries as their choice of where to study abroad. A small northern Ontario city known for nickel mining isn't even on the radar.

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And yet, with students drawn by everything from smaller class sizes to the prospect of a more "Canadian" experience than they'd get in a multicultural metropolis such as Toronto, Mr. Luk is finding takers. In 2008, his first year at Laurentian after nearly three decades at Toronto's Ryerson University, he recruited four Chinese students. The next year, it was eight. This year, it was 25.

The trend is reflected across campus. With an aggressive recruitment strategy driven by an ambitious new administration, Laurentian reports that it received 952 international applications in 2010, more than double the total from three years earlier.

All this should warm the heart of Dalton McGuinty, who has said he wants to increase international enrolment at the province's universities by 50 per cent. But it will also test just what the Ontario Premier's push for foreign students really means, and what its legacy will be.

Laurentian's success goes to show that, with the right effort, even relatively remote campuses can attract international talent. But what remains to be seen is how many newcomers will stick around after graduation.

Mr. McGuinty has spoken endlessly about the need for Ontario to move from manufacturing to a knowledge economy. That's one thing in Toronto, or Ottawa, or Kitchener-Waterloo, which don't lack for human capital. But it's quite another for Ontario's version of the Rust Belt - smaller cities with roots firmly in manual labour.

There could hardly be a better test case than Sudbury, a town that has worked harder than most to reinvent itself, but still struggles to gain respect. Either it will provide the model for getting newcomers to live off the beaten track, or prove it can't be done.

Stompin' who?

This is not Stompin' Tom's Sudbury.

Nor is it the Sudbury of recent media reports - a hard-scrabble place on the verge of collapse during the 11-month Vale Inco strike that ended earlier this year. Instead, most of the city's surprising sprawl looks like a chunk of suburbia airlifted into cottage country.

This did not happen by accident. It came as a reaction to the grim reality Sudbury faced in the 1970s, when mining was the only game in town.

"Every time the price of nickel was down, the economy was down," Mayor John Rodriguez recalls. "It was boom and bust, boom and bust, boom and bust."

In the mid-1970s, it busted hard, with thousands of layoffs at Inco and Falconbridge, the two major employers.

Then came the real wake-up call - a 1978-79 Inco strike that effectively shut down the city compelled local leaders to cobble together a plan to shift Sudbury away from manpower and toward brain power.

"Richard Florida can't tell us anything we didn't discover from our experience," Mr. Rodriguez says, slamming a copy of Mr. Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class onto his coffee table for effect. "We didn't have the benefit of Richard Florida back in 1980. But we sure as hell had a clear idea that we wanted to diversify our economic base."

In the 1980s and 1990s, with a major infusion of provincial cash, that diversification took flight. The university was expanded, and a new francophone college opened. Health care became a priority, including a new medical school and cancer research centre. The provincial Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry was relocated from Toronto. Science North opened as a kid-friendly tourist attraction. Big sums were invested in greening a city that once resembled a moonscape.

Most importantly, a concerted effort was made to build on the city's past by becoming a leader in mining technology that could be used elsewhere - an evolution in which Sudbury plays host to hundreds of companies.

When Inco (now Vale Inco, under Brazilian ownership) went on strike last year, only 3,000 employees were out of work - down from 15,000 in the late 1970s. It was unpleasant, but didn't shut the city down.In the strike's final months, the local unemployment rate actually declined.

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