I HAD only briefly experienced life in Thunder Bay before deciding to make it my home for medical school in 2014. I was born and raised in southern Ontario and had visited just once with my girlfriend to meet her brother and his wife, both of whom had migrated from Sudbury for school.
At first glance, it’s easy to see why some view it as a backward place — it’s isolated, cold and, at least before hipsterdom revamped the Port Arthur landscape, something less than cosmopolitan.
But I was introduced to Thunder Bay through the eyes of people who had made it their home on purpose, and who never tired of extolling its gritty charm. After years of studying medicine there, I too fell in love with this much-maligned place. I’ve travelled abroad extensively and have lived all over Canada (my wife and I are now completing residency in Newfoundland.) Still, if asked, I will say with pride that Thunder Bay is my home.
Perhaps it’s something akin to the zeal of the convert that explains my incredulity when I hear my adopted home so consistently demonized in the Canadian media (The Globe and Mail recently announced it was creating a special bureau exclusively for ‘reconciliation issues’ in Thunder Bay). But I don’t think my personal bias is enough to explain the constant feeling that this city has become the designated scapegoat for a country struggling to come to terms with darker aspects of its past as well as ideologically incongruous aspects of its present.
Thunder Bay currently receives national attention for two things: its disproportionate supply of high-quality hockey players and its disproportionate supply of high- (low?) quality racists.
The chasm between the city’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens has been in the news since before I arrived (and spent the bulk of my orientation week in Pic River learning about Indigenous health) and continues to ruffle journalists to this day (now that Canada’s first Indigenous law school dean has come and gone and Lakehead undergrads are obliged to take courses in Indigenous studies and smudge at commencement).
Thunder Bay’s knuckle-dragging citizens are especially used to seeing headlines alleging their collective responsibility for the deaths of seven Indigenous youth between 2000 and 2011, immortalized in the tender hearts of middle-aged ‘Canada Reads’ followers by the non-fiction Seven Fallen Feathers.
The book’s subtle subtitle is ‘death, racism, and hard truths in a northern city.’ But if there are hard truths about Thunder Bay, the Canadian media appears determined to avoid the most relevant one — namely that the city is ground zero for a national failure.
With a population of just over 100,000, Thunder Bay is the closest major urban centre to some of the most isolated and dysfunctional Indigenous communities in the country. When Ontarians hear about mass suicides and drinking water advisories, and echo the term ‘intergenerational trauma,’ they are often talking about communities whose central hub — for entertainment, school, prison, and aimlessness — is Thunder Bay.
The common narrative is that this is a city suffering from an epidemic of racism, directed at the most vulnerable and stigmatized members of the Canadian mosaic. In truth, Thunder Bay is an imperfect but well-meaning community struggling to deal with a federal crisis.
I have been to the kinds of benighted communities from which the city’s victims hail. Calling them dysfunctional fails to capture the sheer hopelessness and discord that define life there. The fact that many tragic individuals end up on the streets of Thunder Bay is not the fault of the community. It is a cross that no other Canadian city, proportionately, has to bear.
Not surprisingly, Thunder Bay’s troubled relationship with its Indigenous population has received even greater scrutiny as the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) has come to its $92-million close.
Interestingly, my wife and I recently hosted two Airbnb guests visiting St. John’s as part of these hearings. When we explained that we were from Thunder Bay, the looks we received were equal parts pity and disgust. When we emphasized how much we loved the city, the balance shifted where you might expect. Neither guest had ever been to Thunder Bay. Neither cared that the tragic deaths of those fallen feathers did not appear to have anything proximally to do with race. Nor did they seem to know just how far the city has gone to reach out to its Indigenous citizens. All they saw was prejudice.
It seems safe to say that Thunder Bay will only gain notoriety now that Trudeau has gone so far as to accept the inquiry’s hysterical assertion of an ongoing genocide. But it should never be forgotten that the city arguably faces greater demographic and social challenges than any other in Ontario and does so with fewer resources and less public empathy.
Those from Thunder Bay who have internalized the narrative that they have something to atone for would do well to reflect on all the city does to support its Indigenous citizens — from support for Indigenous research to Indigenous-only health clinics to high school bridging programs.
As for critics from southern Ontario and beyond — they would do well to avoid throwing stones in the most ignorant of glass houses. You don’t have to be from Thunder Bay in order to offer an opinion about its current state of affairs, but you do have to know what you’re talking about.
(Originally published June 22, 2019)