THUNDER BAY – It is all around us can you feel it? Some see it, others are experiencing it first hand but is it impacting you or someone you know? Thunder Bay is changing but before we talk about where we are headed, let us take little look at where we have been.
The life of a fur trader. Those hardy Europeans who came looking for animal pelts to trade back to the old country. I often wondered about the first guy who arrived here, paddling in a canoe, enjoying the sounds of the birds, the cool clean water thinking to himself, “hey, this is not a bad place” and then experiencing the wrath of the black fly, the pesky relative we all wish would leave us alone. And after getting through the summer months and surviving the swarms, that fur trader hunkered down for a little winter siesta thinking “a month or two of this and I will head back to work”. So after that first forty below December through March, did he ever think to himself, “what in tar nation am I doing here”.
Fur trading built this region and perhaps even the country but our port and our location as the centre of the country helped us create industry and commerce that made our way of life possible. We all know the tree also had something to do with that economy and life was good. Jobs were aplenty, and even in the 1960’s, people could arrive from Europe and find work without even speaking the language. Their children were fed, schooled and often the kids followed in their fathers footsteps. It was a hearty, proud existence for many generations and it helped create a way of life that has been wonderful to be a part of.
Unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you wish to look at things, that is no longer where Thunder Bay is headed. Where shall we begin?
Why not start with the wish of many elected officials and citizens. The one common theme in my memory over the last thirty years or so was the desire to widen our economy, that thing often spoken about, often complicated, but the one thing that is at the core of our society. Without an economy, there are no pools, no rinks, no paved roads, very little of what we now so easily take for granted.
The term used over the past few decades was a diversified economy, meaning jobs beyond our natural resources that would better position us to withstand the ups and downs of a resource based economy. When people are buying, building homes, shipping products etc, our economy will be riding along with it. But what happens when that stops, when our customers no longer wish to buy our wood? What do we do when people no longer read the newspaper or when an economy built on credit, comes crashing down to earth as in the United States, Ontario’s and Canada’s largest trading partner. When that occurs the suggestion that it may not be good for our country is a gross understatement.
When people are no longer buying Thunder Bay is no longer selling and it is a painful reminder of how fickle an industry can be. So diversification was a long sought after goal that often eluded our city. This website is the perfect example of the change that is sweeping the globe. Ten years ago newspapers were the dominant domain of the worlds events. Now this once tiny website is the most read website in our city. Change is everywhere.
So what exactly has changed. I would love to discuss my theories but we can leave that for another time but let me say many were involved. I believe that my opinion is shared by many who recognize that Thunder Bay is moving away from where it was to something new and exciting. It just might be getting to the point where we are not going to recognize the place, and I say that in the most positive of ways.
Let’s start with the Medical School. Thunder Bay is now training doctors right here in the north with their sister campus located in Sudbury. I am unsure if anyone can say that this has resulted in a significant increase in doctors practicing in the north, as it has only been six years since the doors opened but certainly the likelihood of them staying has increased. Could any of us have foreseen a day when doctors would be trained here, in a city known for trees and grain? We all hoped it would happen but I cannot say that I was convinced that it would. In 1999 I was a member of the Thunder Bay Regional Hospital Board of Directors. I can tell you that at that time, this was not a common point of discussion. Six years later, we had students in our midst being trained as doctors.
Bio medical research, a term I can barely understand. Research positions and companies opening up in Thunder Bay looking to make new products or solve scientific mysteries, the benefits unknown the potential incredible. Even if there are only a handful of jobs today the possibility that this could grow in to its own industry is incredible for a little town in the middle of a giant forest. How fantastic to even consider the possibility of what could be.
I also want to speak to the a project going on that might be unprecedented. The coal plant in Atikokan not only provides a large portion of jobs in that community, it is also supplies a large portion of the community’s tax base. If this facility closed, it would have a huge negative impact on its future. But instead of closing, this tiny little town is going to be home to one of the largest if not the largest Bio Mass energy producing plant in the world, right here in our own backyard. Confederation College has added a bio mass facility to their institution and will be training new students in this industry. I have no idea how successful either of these projects will be but the mere fact that they are being attempted seems to provide a new way of thinking here. Many are excited at the potential.
There are many other examples of good news stories around the city. The new jobs at Bombardier, the new Law School that is coming and the many construction projects that are under way. While some of these are standard in any community, others provide new technologies and a new and better future for our city. It also provides that diversification that many were looking for. Now some of these jobs are in the public sector, some supported by the public sector and others are in the private sector. It is not a perfect solution but given what has gone on around the world, Thunder Bay is doing more than running on the spot. We may be positioning ourselves for the long haul.
We are growing in new and exciting ways and we are providing new opportunities for our children. None of these jobs fit with the dreams of my two sons, but I know several other young people who have started their careers in good jobs from some of these new developments. With luck and a lot of hard work, they will raise their families here and continue a new course for our city. A stronger economy will only help all of our children.
We can look around and find things to improve but then I do not know of a city or a country that does not have challenges. If we eliminate our dependence on one or two industries, if we can leave behind the belief that all things continue forever then we may be moving forward in a new exciting way. I think it it clear that even government jobs provide an economy to a community, a university or a college being one example. The city of London reaps many rewards from the large influx of people to its post secondary institutions and we all are aware of how the economy works in Ottawa.
It has been interesting over the past few years listening to some suggest that Thunder Bay’s best days were behind them. That argument can be made however I believe a stronger more compelling argument can be made that Thunder Bay’s best days are ahead of us and there is ample evidence to support that position. I am optimistic about our future and I think many others feel the same.
We still have challenges but do any of us believe there will ever be a time when Thunder Bay will not face challenges. Our isolation makes it harder in my view to succeed. I too have been guilty of using Duluth as a comparison but the harsh reality is that Duluth is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of additional people. A comparison to them is far from perfect. We are a reasonably sized community, far from any major Canadian city. That makes our challenges harder and more unique but it does not make them impossible. We may not share in the fantastic growth experienced by a city like Barrie, but our future is far from bleak.
We have much to offer and many are now taking the opportunity to return to our city in addition to the new arrivals filling some of these new specialized positions. Health care would be a prime example of some of those new jobs. That is exciting and that seems to offer all of us hope for what might be, and what we might become.
We may not win the 100 meter dash, but perhaps our community can win the marathon: a slow steady pace of improvement that seems to have begun here. I think it will be fantastic if ten years from now, we are reading stories about solid growth, about new industries succeeding and about a new way of life for our little city. Five years ago no one could have possibly foreseen what is going on right now. I for one want to applaud our successes and those involved while continuing the work towards solving our challenges. Thunder Bay is changing. Lets hope this ride keeps going for a few more decades at least. That would be great for all concerned, especially for those whose future is only beginning. Just a thought.