THUNDER BAY – POLITICS – I spent the past three days in Thunder Bay. It was a bit of a roller coaster, including moments which filled me with sadness and rage; and, moments of sheer awe and joy. As I head back to southwestern Ontario, I wanted to share some thoughts.
Warning: this is not short.
On the flight here, I listened to the CANADALAND series on Thunder Bay. It paints a horrifying picture of life in so-called “murder city” with the highest homicide and hate crime rate in Canada. The stories of racism and vicious murders of Indigenous people had me in tears.
On landing, the feeling of being In The North was immediate. I think it’s the spectacular, rugged backdrop. The majestic Sleeping Giant and ice-covered Lake Superior take your breath away. It’s also the distinct sense that life here can be harsh. Colder. Darker. More remote.
I began every conversation this weekend with the same honest statement: I’ve never lived in the North and won’t pretend to understand life here — so I’m here to learn. What followed were remarkably insightful reflections about what life in Thunder Bay (and the North) is all about.
A father shared about his young daughter getting sick, and having to be flown to a paediatric hospital (in London!) for weeks. The care she needed was not available in Northern Ontario. It was clearly hard for him to even talk about. He was unable to go because of the cost.
A teacher at an on-reserve school shared about the horrific racism experienced by her students and their families: people being turned away from services because their concerns weren’t seen to be valid and were quickly dismissed, only intensifying the problem; kids struggling at school because of the effects of intergenerational trauma; communities coping with tragedy after tragedy as suicide rates climb even higher off the charts.
A woman shared how being selected as a recipient for the Basic Income Pilot had improved her life: she was able to go back to school, start a new business, and move into a nicer apartment. She was happier, more productive and excited about the future. When she received the letter in the mail that the Pilot was cancelled by the Ford government, it was devastating.
In fact, there were many stories like this: a woman who used her gov’t-committed Basic Income funding to secure a lease for a new car to start a small cleaning business. When the pilot was cancelled, she couldn’t afford her lease nor could she afford to buy out of it. She was in an even more dire financial situation than before the Pilot. An unforgivable politically-motivated decision with devastating effects on already vulnerable people.
Almost every meeting included discussion of the Inquest into the Deaths of Seven First Nations Youths in the City of Thunder Bay, or the struggles of high school students (sometimes as young as 13) flown in from remote communities, far away from home and family.
Thunder Bay is a community that has faced no shortage of major challenges — and yet there is an *unmistakable* sense of resilience, determination and innovation in this city. You can see it in big and little ways.
You see it in “Wake The Giant” stickers stuck to business windows – a campaign started by teachers at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, addressing racism faced by Indigenous students. A huge version of this logo is also proudly displayed on the front of Thunder Bay City Hall.
You see it in the absolutely *spectacular* waterfront, a former industrial site which has been transformed into an extraordinary public space including an outdoor fireplace set in the middle of a skating rink overlooking Lake Superior (not joking… paradise).
It’s visible in the extraordinary artwork throughout the city, everywhere from restaurants to lobbies to Lakehead University (where we stayed in the residences!). It’s a beautiful mix of stunning landscapes and cultural pieces speaking to the identity and dreams of this community.
It’s a city that punches above its weight in terms of restaurants (yes, I’m looking at you Bight and Tomlins) and offers distinct classic favourites (hello Persian and Hoito pancakes!). It offers a vibrant music and cultural scene.
It’s a diverse city with an eye to the future. We heard city leaders speak with great passion about the work being done to attract and welcome large numbers of newcomers, and build future-focused employment opportunities.
Today at breakfast, we ran into the woman I sat next to on the plane here. She came over to say hello, like running into an old friend. Watching people interact — at the market, in shops, out walking — it’s clearly a community of people who care about their city.
I also had the privilege of meeting political leaders. The stories about how hard people have worked for this community was inspiring. A drive with the Mayor included a visit to the cardiac care facility, complete with narration about the journey taken to secure it.
Long story short: today I am leaving Thunder Bay feeling that we’ve only scratched the surface, and with a deepening love for the North. It’s a part of our province where the realities of life are very different (and often, more challenging) — and yet where so much can be learned.
The community has been divided (it was literally two cities until about 50 years ago, identities still very present in the local lexicon). It’s a collision of cultures and histories. It’s a city that has made headlines too often only in the worst of times.
Yet it’s a city that is clearly working hard to come together; to bridge divides; to acknowledge past failings and to aim for a better future. We met many who have left but found their way home because – in one woman’s words – “it’s a place that always pulls you back.”
Thunder Bay: Thank you. You are indeed a special place. Learning about your challenges was at times overwhelming, but the fire in your belly for a better future was the theme of the weekend. I’m leaving with a racing mind and a full heart.
I, too, will be back.
Candidate for the Ontario Liberal Leadership