I arrived in Thunder Bay in the spring of 1971. I was just back from my official post-university motorcycle trip to Europe and broke. I’d never heard of Thunder Bay. Neither had anyone else. It had recently changed its name. Actually, it was a new amalgamated city made up of the old cities of Fort William and Port Arthur. At the time nobody liked the name and few were very happy about the amalgamation. They came by these feelings honestly.
Port Arthur and Fort William had competed for everything from railway lines to hockey teams for more than a hundred years.
They were smart enough to elect Saul Laskin as their first mayor and he was good at it. I’d never been to Northern Ontario before. I was a refugee from Don Mills and the furthest North of Toronto I had been was a Christmas tree farm near Lake Simcoe where I broke my back pruning. I was hired by the Federal Secretary of State to go to Thunder Bay and help do a study of a government program called Opportunities for Youth (OFY). Our office was in the old Port Arthur post office. Down the hall was a young fellow by the name of Michael Gravelle, who was working for Bob Andras, a federal cabinet member of some note at the time.
Four months later, I made the mistake of saying the OFY program should turn itself on its head in a 50-page report. I thought at the time, in my 23rd year, it was groundbreaking (too long a story to tell here). Someone from The Globe and Mail got my report and did a story. I was fired for my groundbreaking insight a few days later.
I liked Thunder Bay and wanted to stay, notwithstanding my unfortunate engagement with the federal government.
Somehow, I managed to get a job at the Fort William Times Journal as a reporter. I loved it. I knew I had found what I was going to do one way or another for the rest of my life. I still have clippings of full page articles on such scintillating topics as Denturists and the first meeting of the Council of Canadians, which came to Thunder Bay for their first nationalistic meeting because it was determined to be the middle of Canada. People like Pierre Berton and Peter C. Newman showed up at Lakehead University to debate the topics of Canadian survival.
I lived on Crown Street in Port Arthur. Most mornings I’d hike down to the HOITO for breakfast, which used to serve 500-lb. Finnish pancakes to die for. Sometimes I thought I had.
If I walked in the other direction I’d hit the Kangas Sauna at the bottom of the hill, which was absolutely fantastic. My daughter, Alicia was born in Thunder Bay. I had my first case of frozen tires up there, and, sadly, I got fired for the second time in Thunder Bay, when I got a little cocky about overhauling the newsroom at the Times Journal without the formality of being promoted to have that particular responsibility. I was out on the street again, which was getting familiar. I changed strategies a short time later.
In 1977, I bought Lakehead Living Newspaper and ran it for more than 15 years. Today, you know it as the “The Source.” For many years, I had papers in Ignace, Thunder Bay, Nipigon/Red Rock and Terrace Bay/Schreiber. I loved my regular commute to the great North West.
All of this is a very long way to say how concerned I am about Thunder Bay and the substantial cutbacks in the forest business. These are tough times for this proud and able community and it is going to take an extraordinary effort to overcome the vagaries of an industry experiencing a perfect storm of high energy prices, challenging market conditions, a rising Canadian dollar and rising costs for raw materials.
The closing of the Cascades pulp and paper mill is a cautionary tale of the high-risk, high-reward reality of Northern Ontario.
The plant was saved by its employees and the provincial government when it was bought from Abitibi in 1992. In 1997, the employees sold to Cascades. Everyone made some dough on the transaction, which no doubt looked pretty good at the time.
Would it have survived if the employees owned it today? Who knows?
What we do know is that it wouldn’t have gone without kicking and screaming before the fact, not after. Part of the solution in Northern Ontario is local ownership.
I can’t help thinking some of the answer is at the HOITO or, more appropriately, Finland, where they seem to manage resources and create wealth in a far more predictable and efficient manner.
Perhaps from the shock of debilitating cutbacks will come a new, more sustainable approach to managing our resource riches? Let’s hope so. There is a lot of talent in Thunder Bay and the community is going to need to draw on all of it to come out of this.
Time for some pancakes.
Michael Atkins is president of Northern Ontario Business. He can be reached at email@example.com .