Monday, September 14, 2020

A Tale of Two Cities : Trekking across Thunder Bay

To the west of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, the next section of the Great Trail picks up in Thunder Bay. Our Trail Angels of the North, Dave and Donna, kindly and generously gave us a ride in to the edge of the city, and gave us the final gift of dropping us off at the Terry Fox Memorial. We are extremely grateful for this kindness!

Terrance Stanley Fox (28 July 1958 - 28 June 1981) was a Canadian athlete, humanitarian, and cancer research activist who grew up in Port Coquitlam, B.C. After losing one leg to cancer in 1977, he began a Marathon of Hope, running across Canada from east to west to raise money and awareness for cancer research. He began his cross-country run in St. John's, Newfoundland in April, 1980. During the next 143 days he ran 5,373 km, reaching Thunder Bay on 31 August, 1980. At this point the cancer had reached his lungs, forcing him to stop running and return home. He died nine months later. Since his death, annual Terry Fox Runs have been held across North America, which have raised over $750 million dollars for cancer research.


The public monument to Terry Fox is located at a lookout point on the outskirts of Thunder Bay. A bronze statue shows Terry Fox running west towards the city, which we could see stretched out along the shore of Lake Superior. In the other direction we had a panoramic view of the Sleeping Giant, lying quietly across the mouth of the bay.

Standing at the foot of the monument, we could relate to how far Terry Fox had come by this point, and imagine some of the challenges he faced on his cross-country trek. Other aspects of his journey, like enduring constant sickness and pain while running a marathon daily, seem like they must have tested the limits of human endurance. His life is a powerful reminder of the difference one person can make, even when, or perhaps especially when they are faced with extraordinary challenges.

 After visiting the monument we walked a very small stretch of Highway and then picked up the Great Trail at the entrance to the Trowbridge Falls Park. This 302 ha Conservation Area features a section of rapids along the Current River, and is connected to the network of trails through Centennial Park and to the Cascades Conservation Area.


We followed the Great Trail markers across a beautiful metal trestle bridge that spanned the wide, shallow, fast-flowing Current River. We then followed a dirt and crushed stone dust bicycling trail that wound through the forested park. Lots of kids were out with their families playing in the river, and the paths were full of people cycling and jogging. It was nice to see such a vibrant and active outdoor community.


The densely forested trail system led us through Centennial Park, where it became a paved walkway that wove through a replica logging camp and museum. There were wooden cabins and buildings, as well as restored tools and machinery that would have been used in the logging camps around Port Arthur during the early 19th century.


After weaving through Centennial Park we followed the paved cycling trail down a winding road to Boulevard Lake Park. As we approached the park, an adult White-tailed deer walked across the trail ahead of us. She moved very hesitantly, and almost seemed like she was trying to attract our attention. A few moments later a baby deer, which still had a few spots dappling its back, wandered out and crossed the road. That's who the mom had been worried about!


When we reached the shores of Boulevard Lake we discovered that it had been drained, leaving behind a large expanse of mudflats. Many Canada Geese were foraging on small plants or snoozing out in the middle. A few Ring-billed and Herring Gulls were circling lazily overhead or napping among the Geese. A small group of shorebirds were foraging at the edges of a puddle way out in the middle of the lake, but they were too far away to identify without a spotting scope. A small group of Green-winged Teals took fight as we made our way along the grassy shore.


Boulevard Lake was created in 1901 after a dam was built on the Current River to generate electric power for the the town of Port Arthur. The park was created in 1903, and has remained a popular spot for locals to picnic, visit the beach, swim, kayak, canoe, play mini golf, go tobogganing and attend the annual Dragonboat Festival ever since. The lake was drained when we visited due to repairs being made to the dam.

After making our way through the park we began threading our way through the neighborhoods of Thunder Bay, down towards the waterfront. This city, which now has a population of over 120,000 people, was originally two separate communities.

The European settlement of what later became Thunder Bay began in 1683 with the establishment of the first of two French fur trading posts. In 1803 the Montreal-based North West Company established Fort William which thrived until 1821 when the Hudson's Bay Company closed it down. Another settlement was developed a few miles north of Fort William by the federal Department of Public Works, which was named Prince Arthur's Landing. When the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1875 it renamed the town Port Arthur, and a long-lasting rivalry between Fort William and Port Arthur began. Port Arthur had originally been the larger and more vibrant community, but rapid expansion of the railways turned Fort William into a major transportation hub for grain and other products travelling from western Canada through the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway to the east. During WWI an war-time economy emerged based on munitions and ship building. Afterwards forestry and manufacturing played an important role in the economy, and today Lakehead University and Confederation College are major contributors. In 1970 the communities of Port Arthur and Fort William were amalgamated, with the new community taking the name Thunder Bay following a referendum. 

Before reaching Thunder Bay we had been warned that this city has a reputation for being the murder and rape capital of Canada. A look at articles by the CBC and the Globe and Mail confirmed that with 7 to 8 murders per year, its homicide rate is roughly three times higher than it is in other large Canadian cities. Drugs, alcohol, and addiction seem to be at the heart of much of the criminal activity. Violent crimes are also well above average, and racism against Indigenous people exists at a systemic level.

 Of the 7 people murdered in 2017, 6 were Indigenous. Three out every 10 hate crimes committed against Indigenous people in Canada occur in Thunder Bay, where they account for only 13% of the population. Hate filled racist graffiti appears across the city and is painted over on a regular basis. Thunder Bay's problem is Canada's too. It shows the challenges we all face in trying to hear, heal, support, respect, and value Indigenous communities as we move forward together. For right or wrong, these thoughts, and the uncomfortable feelings that went with them, were what we carried with us as we entered the sprawling frontier city.


As we made our way through the newly reclaimed and restored waterfront park in Port Arthur's Landing we were encouraged to see signs of a willingness between the cultures to connect and heal. At the center of the park was the Spirit Garden, which is intended to be a definitive statement that Indigenous cultures matter.


At the heart of this garden was a bent wood structure known as the Gathering Circle or the Celebration Circle. This circular space was enclosed by an amphitheatre with log benches on one side, and a large structure that somewhat resembled a net that was open to both the city and lake on the other. The intention was to honour the local Indigenous people's wish to create an inclusive circle between all people and nature.

The outside of the structure was surrounded by metal panels showcasing Indigenous artwork and telling a story of the Great Thunder, Keeping Tradition, the People of Turtle Island and Turtle Island, the life givers, and the life spirits. It was created by Randy Thomas, an Anishinabe artist whose goal was to inspire anyone who needed inspiration.


In another part of the park, past tree-lined walkways and elevated wooden art boxes, was the viewing circle, which was a brick circle with a firepit in the middle, situated so as to direct your gaze toward Nanabijou. The spot provides green space for ceremonies, blessings, and music.  We very much hope these spaces are used in the spirit they were intended, and can create the beginnings of a healing process.

The waterfront also incorporates brick buildings that were once part of the port. One building dating from around 1900 was converted into the Baggage Building Art Gallery. Another became the Water Garden Pavilion, which was renovated using a contemporary style, and features a large splash pad and ice skating rink outside. 

Slightly inland from the waterfront parks sat the restored railway station. It now houses a home decor store and the Windy Shore Cafe, where we stopped for a lemonade and a couple of delicious berry squares.

As we made our way through downtown we saw further evidence of two cultures meeting. We passed a stretch of highly artistic and creative shops, including an art supply shop, cafes, a juice collective, an art gallery, and a clothing boutique. Many of these stores displayed LGBTQ+ friendly signs in their windows. The street was lined with flower-filled planters, which were painted with colourful designs that incorporated Indigenous art. 

We also found some very creative and colourful street art in the alleys and along the shop walls of the streets. 

On our walk through downtown we also encountered the Algoma Street statues, which are two bronze figures of men with various animals for heads and hands. These sculptures were created by Brandon Vickerd, who was surprised to observe White-tailed Deer and Red Foxes within the city limits of Thunder Bay. He realized that Thunder Bay has managed to incorporate nature into the city, and the statues are meant to provoke thought on the wildlife we share our urban spaces with.

As we made our way across Thunder Bay we found it difficult to get a hold of the community. It is a very long town, stretching about 15 km along the Lakeshore, which makes it difficult to explore on foot without a specific destination. Beyond the downtown core, our impression was of very long stretches of commercial districts featuring large box stores, chain restaurants, fast food outlets, and several malls. Interspersed with these mainstream offerings were smaller businesses, some residences, car repair shops, accounting and tax offices, and government buildings. In some ways it felt like things were jumbled up and spread out, both at the same time. We suspect we may have missed some of what this city has to offer, which is a shame, because it sits in a gorgeous and wild landscape, and it is the last large city we will visit in Northern Ontario.

1 comment:

  1. Great photos as always. Love the street art. Enjoyed reading about your experiences in Thunder Bay. I’ve been through there a few times in my life, once camping overnight but never learned anything about the city. It seems to be only a short stop from the east to the west for many.


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