Thunder Bay whirlwind chill

This past weekend I spent 24 quick hours in Thunder Bay, a city that does not live up to its name: it could have been called Sunny Bay. And rather than thunder, the sound most heard in the city is that of machines struggling against the cold. Car engines barely starting, then wheezing along. Snow tires making that loud hum on the road that seemed to be in harmony with the moaning that was coming out of me as I went on a few walkabouts around the city. They were short, usually no more than 15 minutes as my (in)ability to brave the -36C temperatures for very long has me wondering if I’m a good Canadian after all, though I did have the most exquisite ice cream head ache I’ve ever had (without eating any).

Thus my exploration of the city was limited to whatever was 15 minutes outside of my downtown hotel (above). That is, downtown Port Arthur, as Thunder Bay has two city-centres. Adjacent municipalities Port Arthur and Fort William were amalgamated in 1970 (the first mini-megacity?) and named Thunder Bay, but many long time residents still refer to the two cities by their original names. The space in between, the wonderfully named “intercity,” was described to me as standard big box wasteland. Downtown Port Arthur looks out over the bay to The Sleeping Giant (top picture) that has some of the highest cliffs in Ontario. This elevation, mountains rising out of the water, gives Lake Superior much more of a sea or ocean “feel” than does Lake Ontario.

Below is a quick and chilly photo tour of Port Arthur.

There is an impressive stock of pre-war buildings downtown, built when the mills and shipping made the area prosperous.

The magnificent streamline modern former Eaton’s store still stands, but is now home to a call centre organization called Teleperformance. Look into what were once window displays and you will see rows of customer service folk wearing headsets plugging away at PC desktop computers. These jobs may help offset the loss of the high paying resource-based jobs that used to fuel this town’s economy, but it is likely a difficult (and downward) transition.

The building is put to other good (re)use though. In the basement around back is Definitely Superior, the only functional artist run centre between Winnipeg and Toronto. They have access to the kind of massive cheap space that big-city organizations can only dream of. The organizers I met described to me an upcoming event this year that will take over empty buildings and abandoned lots in and around downtown that will be like a sort of mini Nuit Blanche. It’s encouraging when grassroots arts organizations attempt to generate excitement around an urban neighbourhood in ways standard Business Improvement Area schemes can’t by themselves.

Parking lots often include outlets where people can plug their cars in to keep them warm.

I walked a quick loop uphill into the neighbourhood just north of downtown. The wooden 1970s bandshell is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and has a bit of Scandinavian flair to it. The High School in the background was built when public structures were thought of as important enough to warrant castle-like architecture.

I found an impressive amount of interesting modern buildings in Thunder Bay. There were more than shown here, but my painfully frozen fingers kept slipping off the camera buttons.

Buildings like this give a sense that it was once surrounded by similar structures when Port Arthur was at it’s peak.

The above photos were taken along Bay Street, the sort of bohemian strip of Thunder Bay. The city is also home to the highest Finnish population outside of Finland. The Hoito Restaurant, located in the Finnish Labour Temple, is one of a few restaurants that compete for the “best pancake” title.

Sadly, I was told people routinely “blow their brains out” in this parking lot outside of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s Charity Casino after they have lost everything inside. Unlike the casino in Windsor that has the huge American market to draw on or Casino Rama in Orillia with the entire GTA as a market, the Thunder Bay casino attracts a largely local crowd, and its negative effects are more profoundly felt.

My night walks went undocumented as it was just too cold to bring out the camera. In fact, 7 minutes out I had to duck into the closest bar to warm up. It was a place called “The Office,” a rough sort of bar where I initially wondered if I was in over my head, but I forgot how wonderfully small city bars work — they’re much more diverse and mixed up than big city establishments where every subculture has their own place or night. The first person I saw was the wasted man at the bar who slurred “just get a drink” to me. I did and took position in the back and watched, and only then noticed how diverse it was.

There were the dive bar drunks that catch the eye first, but also students, folks who were over 40, working class guys in baseball hats and plaid coats, a few tables of nerdish looking kids having a fun night out and more ethnic mix than you would find at a standard West Queen West bar (including approximately 1/4 aboriginal Canadian as Fort William First Nation is located just outside town). The DJ played Madonna, Justine Timberlake and other similar dance songs until the cover band went up and played Neil Young, AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses songs (followed by Timbaland and more dance music). The segue was seamless, and through it all the girls with the low rise jeans and midriff tops kept dancing, one arm in the air, one constantly pulling up their pants. In Toronto, if it wasn’t for our public spaces and public transportation, this kind of mixing would occur much less routinely because our quasi-public spaces are much more segregated.


  1. In the summer you can drive out to the Sleeping Giant and then walk out on a platform that extends from the edge of the cliff to leave you hovering above of Lake Superior. Very cool. And terrifying.

  2. Shawn, did you take a Thunder Bay trip purely for wandering? Hats off. Never getting out of Toronto, I really dig your weathering the subzero to capture a slice of Port Arthur.

  3. There’s definitely a fashion-lag punchline in the notion of Thunder Bay as the sort of place where girls would still be wearing low-rise jeans and midriff tops in 2008–and in *January*, and in *Thunder Bay*, if you get my (snow and ice) drift.

  4. Adam> I don’t know if it’s a Thunder Bay thing — you can find these fashions in bars all over Toronto and beyond.

    boop> Was there on [murmur] business (working with youth across Ontario who are making site-specific plays that will be delivered via mobile phone), but had time to do the wandering. If the trip was purely for wandering, I’d have picked warmer weather. I had this great plan to walk out of town to the Terry Fox memorial, but that quickly stopped being so desirable.

  5. Kudos, Shawn…

    Being a Thunder Bay-ite living in Toronto, it’s entertaining read your experiences. Your pictures and words encapsulate the beauty and blemishes of the city I still refer to as “home”.

    As an aside, had you continued walking up the hill by the bandshell and Port Arthur Collegiate Institute (the stone high school) and looked over the city toward the lake, you would have had a great photo-op…


  6. I passed this on to a friend from Thunder Bay. His comment was “I do miss my home town from time to time, but the reality is I would never go back for any extended period. The place is in a real decline.”

  7. This was a trip down memory lane… I moved away from Thunder Bay in 1990, thanks for the memories!
    …and yes Tyler is right, a trip to the city isn’t complete without having a Persian doughnut!!

  8. >Shawn
    I am a Toronto kid so I don’t have much choice but I like Thunder Bay and my buddy has tons of wild stories about driving down to the US to see US bands like Kiss on Tour in the late 70’s. Wish I had been part of that.

  9. I was surprised the Minneapolis is only 5 hours away.

    But didn’t Toronto kids go on epic trips to Buffalo to see Kiss and Dead and etc?

  10. Great article/pictures. I moved back home in 1997 and have never regretted my decision. There’s just so much this city has to offer. You should return in the summer when you can see the South side too!

  11. Very interesting article and pretty accurate.A good friend of mine owns The Office Bar and has been host to some great Blues artists in the past.
    The city has a lot to offer but having an affinity for the outdoors is what really keeps people here.We are also rated the most affordable city in the world for housing.So come on up!

  12. Hi Sean:
    I can’t believe that in such a short time, you put together an amazing collage review of our strange and yet wonderful town. You have a lovely way of viewing it all without slantedness (is that a word?), but just “this is what I see”. I really appreciate it as I have made this my home- with all its blemishes and changes to the economy. Thanks for making everyday sites worthy of a second look

  13. hey shawn, this is eleanor’s daughter from thunder bay. i live in toronto now but it was really nice to look at your pictures. you took a picture of my old highschool, my favourite restaurant, and the run down closed cafe my dad said i was named after (rosebud cafe). it made my day!

  14. Eleanor and Caitlin’s friend here. Shawn,I so appreciate your ability to see what’s curious and charming about TBay. Surprisingly, you, a tourist,a confirmed outsider, have really improved my clarity around what I adore and relate to in my home town. Even though I’ve been in Toronto for years, I take every opportunity I can to let people know I’m from Thunder Bay. This definitely puts me in a tres cool category (says me)! It’s a great club to be part of.

    Many Thanks Eh!

  15. No kidding you can never go home again. I’m back after 10 years in Toronto and I’m desperately wanting OUT of this skid-hole. A friend of mine found this link and posted it on FB. Here’s the real deal on T.Bay that the pictures failed to capture:

    Full of oversized trucks, rednecks and low-rise, low-rent, decrepit, deserted, and UGLY ASS buildings, Thunder Bay’s lack of real culture, real jobs and any kind of entertainment that doesn’t include country twangings is a depressing tribute to the lame, old school idiots who have been running this city for years without any inspiration to speak of. The cold is also very real and lasts for 9 months out of the year. Flights from here / to here are about equal to what it would be to fly to Europe a lot of the time. Listerine and aerosol hairspray are high in consumption. And most recently, gay guys minding their own business get beaten to a pulp and the cops do nothing.

    I had high hopes moving back here. I was willing to give it a chance, after all, we do have the most sunshine hours in all of Canada. And time and time again all I can do is shake my head and wonder why the hell I came back. My grampa who actually owns a pretty successful business here told me once that the second I could, I should “…get out of mickey mouse Thunder Bay” and it’s the best thing I ever did.

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