Half a century ago, locals celebrated — and grumbled about — the birth of Thunder Bay

In 1970, two cities and two townships merged, creating Ontario’s sixth-largest city. But not everyone welcomed the arrival of the brand-new municipality
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Jan 10, 2020
The Welcome Arch, pictured in 1965, marking the boundary between the cities of Port Arthur and Fort William. (City of Thunder Bay Archives, TBA P016, Accession: 1993-01-277/ thunderbay.ca)

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At midnight on January 1, 1970, a ceremony was held at the arch that had, until that moment, marked the boundary between the cities of Port Arthur and Fort William. Previously known as the Welcome Arch, it would henceforth be called the Unity Arch, marking a symbolic end to the long rivalry that had, as the Globe and Mail observed, seen the two communities “fighting over land, new businesses, railway lines, and sometimes just for the hell of it.” As church bells rang and fireworks went off, a sign on the arch flashed “Happy Birthday Thunder Bay.”

With that, Ontario’s newest city was born. But, amid the celebrations, there was a great deal of grumbling over how the amalgamation process in the Lakehead area had unfolded.

Beginning in the Victorian era, the twin cities on Lake Superior had developed a deep rivalry that frequently prevented any form of co-operation. Each had its own transit system: passengers had to get off at the boundary and pay another fare before crossing into the other city. Taxis from one city couldn’t seek fares in the other. There were separate water systems, sewage facilities, fire and police services. When one city lowered its taxes, the other did the same, leading to infrastructure deficiencies. Children from the two communities were apparently taught to ridicule one another — according to local legend, mothers toilet-training their children in Fort William would tell them they had to flush because Port Arthur, which drew its water from the same source Fort William dumped its sewage into, “needs the water.” Left to their own devices, the cities would likely never have come together. While Port Arthur supported a merger in a 1958 referendum, Fort William didn’t.

Enter the province. Starting in the mid-1960s, premier John Robarts’s government had examined restructuring municipal government to support the province’s rapid growth and to reduce the costly duplication of infrastructure and services. (The findings of local-government reviews led to the creation of regional municipalities in the early 1970s.) After Port Arthur invited government officials to conduct a study, the province turned to planner Eric Hardy. In April 1968, he released a 116-page report in which he concluded that the two cities, along with the Neebing and McIntyre townships, should be merged into one municipality. Port Arthur and Fort William would each have five representatives on the new council, and each township would have one.

While the mayors of both cities were pleased, and some in the business community were enthusiastic about the prospect of stronger economic opportunities, many residents were upset by Hardy’s recommendations. They had distrusted him during the consultation process, which had involved only private meetings, and viewed him an outsider from the south who didn’t understand the area. Older residents feared that the communities would lose their historical identities and that the two cities would never get along. Municipal employees were concerned about possible job losses. The Fort William Times-Journal was willing to accept a regional municipality model but objected to the idea of a merger: Hardy and municipal-affairs minister Darcy McKeough, it wrote, could “stuff it.”

McKeough officially announced the amalgamation on January 27, 1969  (earlier in the week, the government had unveiled plans for what would become Halton, Niagara, and Peel Regions). The 300 members of the Fort William Ratepayers’ Association immediately sent a letter to Robarts in which they argued that the city’s council had no authority to move ahead with amalgamation, because residents had rejected the proposal during previous plebiscites. “The people of Fort William have been duped,” they wrote, “and the Ontario government misinformed by a conspiracy working in the area.”

Many were also angry that McKeough had decided not to allow a public vote on amalgamation. Port Arthur MPP Ron Knight took out a newspaper ad asking for signatures to demand a vote; he later made a four-hour speech on the subject in the legislature. Port Arthur mayor Saul Laskin, though, felt that a public vote would serve no useful purpose. “What good is a plebiscite,” he told Maclean’s, “when the young people — whose future is being decided — wouldn’t have a vote? Why should older people adjudicate their future?” No vote was held, and the new city was created via the passage of Bill 118 on May 8, 1969.

The next issue was naming. The legislation temporarily incorporated the city as The Lakehead, which appeared to be a popular choice throughout the communities. When voters went to the polls on June 23, they were given a choice of Lakehead, The Lakehead, or Thunder Bay. Though the third option won, the combined votes for the Lakehead options were greater, leading to accusations that those who favoured Thunder Bay had rigged the ballot. The results stood.

During the transition period, bitterness remained. Neebing Township, which had wanted to merge only with Fort William and feared that it would see increased taxes to cover improvements to educational, fire, and police services, decided to spite the province by selling all the land it owned.

An official ceremony marking the birth of Ontario’s sixth-largest city (population 107,000) was held on January 2, 1970, at Selkirk High School. Laskin, who had been elected as Thunder Bay’s first mayor, promised that the new municipality would become “the hub of the development already occurring in our area.” McKeough presented him with a framed copy of the amalgamation bill and observed that, in the future, people would look at the document either as something that had led to prosperity or as the thing “that did us in.”

It took time to work out the issues stemming from amalgamation. “People expected the city to blossom into a great empire in a couple of months,” Laskin told Weekend magazine in 1974. The infrastructure upgrades required to unite old systems slowed the construction of homes and facilities. While a hiring freeze and attrition prevented municipal job losses, police were upset that existing rank would not be recognized, meaning that officers would have to write exams to determine their position within the force. For a time, the city’s two Thomson-owned newspapers were barely distributed in each other’s territories. More than 40 duplicate street names had to be changed.

But, gradually, the old rivalry died down, and Thunder Bay became the business and cultural centre of northwestern Ontario. “I have no problem when people refer to Port Arthur and Fort William,” current mayor Bill Mauro said as the city prepared for its 50th anniversary. “They are just like neighbourhoods like Current River, Westfort, Northwood. We are a community of very defined neighbourhoods. That’s part of our history.”

Sources: Thunder Bay: A History by Joseph M. Mauro (Thunder Bay: Lehto Printers, 1981); the July 1, 1968, January 28, 1969, January 1, 1970, and February 16, 1971 editions of the Globe and Mail; the March 1969 edition of Maclean’s; the November 5, 2019 edition of tbnewswatch.com; the November 26, 1968, January 28, 1969, and January 2, 1970 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 21, 1974 edition of Weekend.

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