Sean SpeerThere is a lot to be pessimistic about in Thunder Bay these days, writes Sean Speer. But these challenges are overshadowing the city’s inherent dynamism.

By Sean Speer, July 31, 2017

Thunder Bay has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent months. Tragedy and scandal are increasingly how the national public has come to know it.

My hometown’s challenges are real. Indigenous people are too frequently touched by violence and suicide. Systemic racism continues to persist. New political turmoil threatens to exacerbate a tense situation.

That these incidents are occurring against a longer-term backdrop of economic dislocation and population decline presents a complex set of cultural, economic, political, and social issues to confront.

It will require introspection, trial and error, and understanding and respect. An upcoming summit on community relations and reconciliation organized by a local MP may be a good start.

It’s regrettable that Thunder Bay’s strengths and opportunities have been overshadowed.

It will also require greater engagement on the part of the federal and provincial governments. Many of Thunder Bay’s challenges find their origins in regional problems that are beyond the scope of local leaders. Joblessness, poverty, substance abuse, and family breakdown still affect too many people in Northwestern Ontario, particularly in Indigenous communities.

But while these challenges are real and the national attention is warranted, it’s regrettable that Thunder Bay’s strengths and opportunities have been overshadowed. The city’s fundamental decency and goodness is concealed. Its increasing dynamism and growing potential is obscured. And people elsewhere in the country are left with the impression of a city devoid of virtue and increasingly in decline.

Yet Thunder Bay’s civic spirit makes it special. Perhaps this is a manifestation of its isolation. Maybe it reflects its blue-collar ethic and trade union roots. Or it could be the enduring size of its Finnish population. Whatever the cause, associationalism remains a key part of Thunder Bay’s community character.

It’s no surprise, for instance, that Thunder Bay residents are among the most charitable in Canada. They don’t just cut cheques, either. Volunteerism is woven into the city’s social fabric. The community response to a flooding emergency in 2012 is one high-profile example. But there are acts of civic engagement everyday ranging from the Dew Drop Inn soup kitchen to a recent Habitat for Humanity project, and so on. The city’s old motto of “a giant heart” is regularly put into action.

It’s difficult not to be struck by Thunder Bay’s communitarian impulse and civic pride – especially having lived elsewhere without the same community orientation. Former residents are spread out across the globe and yet remain connected to the community through, among other things, our Stanley Cup pedigree, local foods, and peculiar phraseology. Thunder Bay invariably remains a part of you.

And the slow-yet-steady transformation of the local economy means young people may not be forced to leave in the future. A regional medical school, an isotope-producing cyclotron, and a new law school reflect the city’s transition to an increasingly service-based economy.

It’s been a difficult process and, of course, not everyone has been absorbed by emerging industries and firms, as evidenced by the city’s below-average labour force participation rate. But the trend is generally positive and the local unemployment rate is now below the national average and its total median income exceeds it.

The upshot is that there’s growing cause for economic optimism – particularly in light of recent progress on the Ring of Fire project, which has the potential to create jobs and opportunity across the region, including for Indigenous people. One can detect signs of renewed collective confidence in the form of new restaurants and shops and a revitalization of Port Arthur’s downtown.

Thunder Bay has some real strengths and opportunities that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

This buoyancy is, of course, not shared by everyone. Too many city residents lack opportunity. Homelessness is a problem. Crime and the substance abuse that it fuels is present in our community. The number of Indigenous youth who have died since 2000 is a human tragedy that requires immediate remedy.

It’s not to diminish these challenges facing the city or the wrongs experienced by Indigenous people who call Thunder Bay home. Those who love the community are the most distressed by its failings.

But it is to say to Thunder Bay has some real strengths and opportunities that shouldn’t go unnoticed. These lie in its people who are overwhelmingly good, decent, caring, and proud of their city. They want better lives for their children and a better future for their community and all its citizens.

As the Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde has recently written, we’re all in this together. I have confidence that progress will be made. I have faith in the people of my hometown.

Sean Speer is a Munk Senior Fellow for fiscal policy at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. He was born in Thunder Bay and now lives in Toronto.