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Celebrating excellence this year in Thunder Bay

Three years ago, my daughter (then 14) competed at Mount Baldy in an Ontario Alpine Ski Race. It was a big deal for me. I don’t get to Thunder Bay as much as I used to and I had a story to tell.
Michael Atkins, President, Northern Ontario Business,

Three years ago, my daughter (then 14) competed at Mount Baldy in an Ontario Alpine Ski Race. It was a big deal for me. I don’t get to Thunder Bay as much as I used to and I had a story to tell. I made her find time for an afternoon tour of the highlights of my launch into the newspaper business in Thunder Bay some 43 years ago.

The old Fort William Times Journal building on Memorial Drive where I got and lost (fired) my first newspaper job. Crown Street in Port Arthur where I lived and where my first daughter was born. The Hoito where I had breakfast. The Kangas Sauna where I thawed out. The various addresses of Lakehead Living (a weekly newspaper), which I owned for some 20 years.

The top of Mount McKay where Mayor Saul Laskin told me my tires would freeze in February (he was right) if I had the temerity to hang around through winter (I was a refugee from Don Mills). The post office where I worked next door to Bob Andras and his constituency man, Michael Gravelle.

I had fun. Jackie fell asleep in the car.

I don’t blame her. It was a forced march. I didn’t introduce her to people. I showed her spots.

One of the historical notes I did not think to tell her at the time is that we launched the Northern Ontario Business Awards in Thunder Bay 29 years ago. Although it was our idea, we couldn’t have launched it without the initial support of David Peterson, the premier of the province at the time. He was a big supporter of Northern Ontario and was keen to bring Northerners together to build community and business.

Since that moment so long ago, we have celebrated more than 250 people and companies who have made Northern Ontario a better place to live.

The thing is that it is not easy to create wealth and jobs in Northern Ontario. We live with extraordinary cycles of growth and retraction, we battle limited visibility and political clout at Queen’s Park and Ottawa, and we endure higher costs to do business, limited scale and considerable distance to markets.

And yet, and yet. We have the only medical school in Canada anchored at two universities that are more than 1,000 kilometres apart. It has been a spectacular success. We have a Northern Policy Institute that spans the North and is helping us understand it. Each major city in Northern Ontario has faced spectacular economic challenges at one time or another, and each has come together to battle its demons and, by any normal standard, been successful in changing the course of history. We have new hospitals and a far more sophisticated economy that we did 29 years ago.

This success is anchored by a business class that is deeply integrated into its communities. It is not possible to do business in Northern Ontario without being connected to the pulse of where you live in Northern Ontario.

Although we are separated by hundreds of miles, we share a culture. It is a fun-loving, hardworking, contrarian culture rooted in awe of the land and the beauty of where we live. Perversely, the battle to survive is what makes it such fun to be here. It keeps you conscious and connected.

It is this culture of stubbornness and creativity, of isolation and innovation, of joy and fear that we sought to celebrate so many years ago. Although I’m getting a little long in the tooth and find myself going to bed before breakfast at these annual celebrations, which was decidedly not the case in the beginning, the spirit remains. To do business in the North is an honour.

On Oct. 1 we will celebrate the best among us for the 29th year in a row at the Victoria Inn in Thunder Bay. It will be fun. It will be noisy. It will be us.

The day before the big event, we have a private dinner for the winners to allow them to get to know one another from across the North. There is almost always an instant connection of people with similar passions, trials and successes.

I’ve been very lucky to witness this fete without interruption for a long time.

I appreciate it.