Progress and Change in Thunder Bay

A Northwestern Ontario morning started the day at Fort William Historical Park
Northern Power Port of Thunder Bay
Port of Thunder Bay – From the middle of North America to the world.

THUNDER BAY – Progress and change are two constants in our world. Over the past ten years, Thunder Bay has been in the midst of a massive amount of change. Much of that change is for the better. Our city is becoming more diverse, more inclusive, and our economic change is moving us forward. Only a short time ago, Thunder Bay was a ‘Mill Town’ with seven paper mills. Our shipments of grain from the Port of Thunder Bay were massive. 

Positive change in the form of the Prince Arthurs Landing, the move toward medical research, and the efforts in building a new frontier spirit of entrepreneurship are strong symbols of ‘The Emerging Thunder Bay’.

Building for the Future in Thunder Bay

expect changeChange often comes slowly. In Thunder Bay economics has forced greater speed. The choice was in effect forced on the community. It was change or perish. Under former Mayor Lynn Peterson, and former MP Joe Commuzi there was a long shove toward a knowledge based economy. Under Mayor Hobbs there has been a steady push forward to be more inclusive and make sure more of our residents can partake of the opportunities in our city.

There is a lot of real work going on, and there is a lot of really ‘heavy lifting’ that must be done.

One area that must change if Thunder Bay is to honestly thrive is that willingness in our community to be inward in our thinking. Have you ever noticed how for some in our city, the practice of self-congratulation is way too strong? We need to become confident enough that we let others notice and celebrate our success.

We also need to focus effort on the long-term. 

Take the Port of Thunder Bay as an example. 

Real long term planning is needed

During the 1970s an average of 1,341 vessels came through the Port of Thunder Bay. Today, that total is down to about  . Over the past ten years, that average has been 406 vessels. The change came when prairie farmers and elevator companies started replacing the old wooden grain elevators that used to dot the landscape in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and southern Manitoba with new larger concrete elevators that did much of the work. 

Rail shipments of grain slowed in Thunder Bay after that. 

Today there are mild congratulations over increases of four to eight ships. 

Time to upgrade the Seaway

Perhaps what is needed is the effort at all levels of government to bring the Great Lakes into the 21st century and upgrade the locks system so that modern ships can navigate to Thunder Bay and Duluth? That would be far more effective and longer lasting.

To a great deal, the same approach can be found when looking at housing stats in Thunder Bay. Today there are some who celebrate what are in effect tiny gains in housing stats. 

Once again if one looks to the longer term, and realizes there is in effect a housing shortage in this community instead of cheerleading the small changes, a real long-term strategy is needed.

Even for students coming to Thunder Bay to study at Lakehead University or Confederation College finding a place to live is a serious challenge. 

All three levels of government should be working with each other toward solving that crisis. It is even more of a factor if you consider some of the job figures that a few politicians are tossing into the mix for mining jobs.

Take for example the figure of 5,000 new workers coming to Thunder Bay to work in the mining sector. 

What is not being talked about enough is where would those people live? If half of those new workers were married and had a child, we are talking about a potential increase in the population of 10,000 people. We do not have the capacity to absorb even that small number.


Resolute CEP Logs Forestry Endangered speciesDuring the forestry heydays of the 1970s, Thunder Bay was a world leader in pulp and paper. Today, as you and hundreds of millions of people across the globe read their news online the demand for newsprint has fallen as fast a the demand for buggy whips after the Model A Ford started selling.

Often it seems some in our community simply feel it is a matter of time and forestry will come back. The fact is that while forestry will always likely be a factor in the economy in the Northwest, the reality is it will never be the huge economic driver it once was.

The failure of Thunder Bay Fine Papers and Global Sticks seem to be forgotten in the charge to restore forestry. Modern practices and new ideas are going to be the hallmarks for future economic action in the forest sectors.

Information Technology

It is critical for a modern city to adapt and evolve. Today the world moves at the speed of information. Information travels at the speed of technology.

Our community has made several transitions in our history. From the original economy of trading with the Ojibway and Cree for furs, Fort William based our economy on trade. There was little processing of the furs into the hats which were made in England and sold across Europe.

Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario has traditionally focused on primary resource industry. 

Primary industry will always be a part of our economic mix. However for real success, we need to continue to diversify our economy. We need to keep working hard and stop the short-sighted patting ourselves on the back for ‘successes’ that are not in effect real successes.


We have two hard working provincial MPPs. We have a Premier who says that the North is going to be a focal point for her government. It is likely that in addition to the Northern Ontario planning, that Premier Wynne needs to place a lot more focus on the North. It would be positive if the Premier were to invest more time in our community, and spend part of that time talking and engaging directly with residents, as well as business and political leaders.


Thunder Bay Waterfront Spring Morning
A beautiful spring morning down at the Fort William Waterfront. Kam Park

Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario face serious challenges from the issues of drug addiction and alcoholism. Dealing in a full and substantive manner with that problem is going to take serious political courage. It is going to take engaging the community and sharing the vision and the importance.

It is also going to take serious changes within the Alcohol and Gaming Commission and Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Perhaps in the North, instead of rewarding massive overconsumption, the shift needs to be toward education, real enforcement, and change. Provincially, it has a certain irony when there are reports of licenced establishments having the AGCO investigating over-serving complaints while at the same time there are reports of licensed establishment owners being rewarded for the huge sales with tickets to NHL Playoff tickets.

Real action, not simple lip-service is needed.

Thunder Bay should be looking west to Calgary for solutions. In Calgary the Alpha House is a facility geared toward starting the big shift from alcoholism. The Rotary Shelter House in Thunder Bay is doing great work, but needs obvious expansion of the programs. 


Federal Budget Investing Canadian MoneyThunder Bay is becoming a growing centre of entrepreneurship. Efforts by the Northwest Centre for Innovation, Thunder Bay Ventures, the BDC, and the Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC) are fostering a new and vibrant spirit of optimism and entrepreneurship. 

It would likely be a positive move for the City of Thunder Bay to boost the CEDC and put the licencing and planning side of business development into the CEDC and take it out of City Hall.

Building our future in an era of ever shrinking government funds is going to mean building a solid business base is a critical move for the city.

Becoming a centre for entrepreneurship will help diversify our economic base. It is a key to attracting innovation and boosting the job base.

In the future taking new, bold and innovative solutions will be a key for success.


HydrailBombardier in Thunder Bay is a fantastic assembly facility for the Berlin based global giant. Thunder Bay could boost our local economy with working to adapt and expand the rail manufacturing in the city. 

Siemens is on of the other companies building and designing rail and commuter rail. Having two manufacturers in the community would generate the incubator for the suppliers and smaller manufacturers to locate to the city. 

Thunder Bay was once touted as a place for Hydrail. This week, in Toronto the International Hydrail community has gathered. Thunder Bay should be engaging with this community, at the provincial level and working to honour the promise originally offered by Premier Dalton McGuinty.

The Future

Thunder Bay, and Northwestern Ontario’s brightest days are ahead of us. While some in the community appear focused on the past, all one needs to do in order to witness success is look to Fort William Historical Park. has embraced our history all while leaping forward solidly into the future. 

Thunder Bay from all areas need to be working hard to realize our potential.

 It is an effort for all of us working together to make that future the brightest possible.

James Murray 

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