Thunder Bay

   Thunder Bay, Ont, incorporated as a city in 1970, population 108 359 (2011c), 109 160 (2006c).

Fort William, Aerial
Fort William, Ontario, was the centre of the northwestern fur trade (courtesy Ontario Ministry of Tourism).
Sleeping Giant
The impressive rock formation of Nanibijou, the Sleeping Giant, lies across Thunder Bay.
Thunder Bay, City Map
Click and drag the map to move it around.
Prince Arthur
Teams leaving for Fort Garry, 1873 and the Dawson Road for Red River (courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Library).

Thunder Bay

   Thunder Bay, Ont, incorporated as a city in 1970, population 108 359 (2011c), 109 160 (2006c). The City of Thunder Bay, created by the amalgamation of the cities of Fort William and Port Arthur and the adjacent townships of Neebing and McIntyre, is located in the northwest part of Ontario on the west shore of the LAKE SUPERIOR bay of the same name. The Port of Thunder Bay is the western terminus in Canada of the Great Lakes-St Lawrence Seaway. Small patches of agricultural land occur adjacent to the city, but the community's physical and economic hinterland is dominated by the rocks, lakes and forests of the Canadian SHIELD. Surrounding communities depend upon tourism or some form of resource extraction and look to Thunder Bay for a wide variety of services.

Settlement and Development

 Paleo-Indian hunters followed herds of caribou into the area some 10 000 years ago as the ice of the Wisconsin glaciation retreated northwards. Locally manufactured stone tools and weapons, native copper artifacts and pottery produced by these groups and their descendants have been identified at numerous archaeological sites in the district. At the time of the first European contact in the 17th century the local population consisted of bands of OJIBWA. The bay's name refers to the THUNDERBIRD that is part of their folklore.

Daniel DULHUT built Fort Caministigoyan beside the Kaministiquia River in 1679, and the fort was used by French traders and explorers such as Jean-Baptiste LA VÉRENDRYE (1731) until the Kaministiquia route westwards was abandoned in favour of the GRAND PORTAGE. Permanent European settlement on Thunder Bay was established in 1803 with the construction of FORT WILLIAM by the North West Company (NWC).

 Between 1805 and 1821, Fort William was the most important settlement in the interior of North America as the centre of the NWC fur-trading empire. Although its importance declined when the NWC amalgamated with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, settlement persisted until 1870, when it was joined by Prince Arthur's Landing some kilometres northeast, at the east end of the DAWSON ROAD.

Better docking facilities and the discovery of silver allowed the landing to outpace its older neighbour, but in 1875 new life was injected into the latter when the construction of the transcontinental railway commenced at Fort William. The mutual hostility and suspicion engendered by that event continued for nearly a century. The landing was incorporated as the town of Port Arthur in 1884, Fort William was incorporated in 1892, and both settlements were granted civic charters in 1907. The 2 cities developed similarly but separately until 1970, when under pressure from the provincial government they were incorporated as the city of Thunder Bay.


 Thunder Bay occupies the floodplains of the lower Kaministiquia, Neebing and McIntyre rivers, the former shorelines of Lake Superior to the northeast and the higher ground of the Port Arthur hills. To the south rises Mount McKay and the Nor'Westers, a range of steep-sided flat-topped hills. East, about 25 km across the bay, is the Sibley Peninsula, which includes Nanibijou, The Sleeping Giant, an impressive rock formation about 33 km long with vertical rock faces rising over 300 m out of the lake.

 Amalgamation produced a city with 2 downtown cores, each with its adjacent older residential districts, and separate suburban development. Attempts at revitalizing the core areas through urban renewal and the development of climate-controlled shopping precincts have met with only limited success, and both continue to suffer economically in competition with suburban malls. Since amalgamation, significant dispersed residential development has taken place in the 2 incorporated rural townships. Industrial land is concentrated along the waterfront and in the Westfort and Intercity areas. Balmoral Industrial Park was created in the mid-1970s to encourage the establishment of new light industries, but has been more successful in attracting commercial, service and retail activities.


In keeping with the frontier nature of the economy, the late 19th-century pioneer population of the Lakehead communities was predominantly male and fluctuated wildly in response to changing employment opportunities in railway construction, shipping and silver mining. From about 3000 inhabitants each in the late 1890s, the 2 cities grew rapidly up to 1914, with Fort William in the lead. At amalgamation, each had close to 50 000 inhabitants and since then growth has been slow.

Early settlement was essentially Anglo-Saxon and that group controlled the city's economic and political establishment until World War II. Major concentrations of UKRAINIANS and ITALIANS occur in Fort William, whereas in Port Arthur and adjacent McIntyre, Finns make up the main immigrant group. POLES, Scandinavians, SLOVAKS, GREEKS, GERMANS and DUTCH also have strong cultural identities. Since the 1960s, there has been little direct immigration from Europe, but CHINESE and SOUTH ASIANS moved into the community in increasing numbers in the 1970s. The modern ethnocultural diversity of the city is commemorated in the International Friendship Gardens and supported by the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association.

Economy and Labour Force

 Natural resource extraction, processing and transportation continue to be strongly represented in the economy of Thunder Bay. The forest industry, with woodlands operations, pulp and paper mills and wood-processing plants, is the largest industrial employer. Forest products, coal and potash are exported through Thunder Bay harbour, but grain, accounting for 70% of the port's traffic, predominates. The grain trade has suffered as a result of changing international trading patterns and competition from West Coast ports, causing the closure of several elevators in the 1990s. The port continues to ship between 8 and 10 million tonnes annually, and with 9 terminal elevators capable of cleaning and storing 1.4 million tonnes of grain, it remains one of the world's largest grain-handling facilities.

Secondary industries include railcar construction, ship repair and specialized equipment assembly and modification for the resource-based industries. Administrative and service functions employ a large proportion of the labour force and, with the tourism industry, form the second largest employer after forestry, catering to over 1 million visitors annually. Camping areas within the city limits plus provincial parks in the surrounding area serve summer tourists, while the 2 downhill and 2 cross-country ski areas around the city attract winter visitors. Boaters have access to a full-service marina and its adjacent waterfront park, built on reclaimed industrial land.

Along with tourism, government, education and health services provide diversity in the city's economy and help to maintain a certain buoyancy during periodic fluctuations in the resource industries. A promising development has been the growth of a number of small biotech companies, which along with the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre and the Lakehead University's medical school are expected to contribute significantly to the health services component of the city's economy.


 Fort William was the very hub of the fur-trade route to the northwest. It gained new importance in 1885 when the CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY was completed, and a steadily increasing flow of western grain came into the Lakehead for shipment east. With the completion of the Manitoba to Port Arthur section of the CANADIAN NORTHERN RAILWAY (1902), Thunder Bay became one of the world's largest grain ports. Lakehead Harbour benefited from the opening of the ST LAWRENCE SEAWAY (1959) and the Keefer Terminal, a lake and ocean freight-handling dock (1962). Despite the annual disruption of the freeze-up and changing patterns in international trade that favour West Coast shippers, it remains one of the busiest ports in Canada.

CP Rail and CN link Thunder Bay to the national rail network, although passenger services were discontinued in 1990. The TRANS-CANADA HIGHWAY is the only east-west route through the area, and as a result all road traffic to and from other parts of Canada must pass through Thunder Bay. AIR CANADA and WestJet combine with local carriers, such as Bearskin Airlines, to provide national and regional air services, and Northwest Airlines flights allow access to US destinations through Minneapolis. Native-owned airlines, such as Wasaya Airways and North American Charters 2000, provide important services for the First Nations communities north and west of Thunder Bay.

Government and Politics

The present municipal government is headed by a city council elected every 3 years, consisting of a mayor (elected at large) and 12 aldermen (5 elected at large, 1 from each of the 7 wards). Council policies are administered by 10 departments and 5 boards or commissions. Thunder Bay Hydro controls the sale and distribution of electricity in the city, and the municipally owned Thunder Bay Telephone (or TBayTel) is the largest independent phone system in Canada. City council is also represented on a variety of local organizations such as the Lakehead Region Conservation Authority and the Harbour Commission. The public and separate school boards have their administrative offices in the city with jurisdiction extending into the adjacent rural municipalities.

Cultural Life

Thunder Bay has become the regional centre for cultural life in northwest Ontario. In the heart of the city is the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium, considered one of the finest concert halls in North America. Productions range from the concerts of the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra and the Fort William Male Choir to multicultural music ensembles and performances by a host of contemporary entertainers. There is one professional theatre company, Magnus Theatre, as well as a variety of amateur companies. Thunder Bay is also the site of one of the province of Ontario's Charity Casinos.

The Thunder Bay Art Gallery is a national exhibition centre for native and INUIT ART. There are also several artist-run or private galleries exhibiting local art. Local history is kept alive at the Thunder Bay Historical Museum at Fort William Historical Park, a replica of the 19th-century fur-trading post, and at the Founders' Museum, which takes the form of a northwestern Ontario pioneer village from the early 1900s. The city's cultural diversity is promoted through the activities of various ethnic groups and an annual multicultural festival.

Post-secondary education is provided by Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology and LAKEHEAD UNIVERSITY. The Lakehead campus shares a medical school with LAURENTIAN UNIVERSITY in Sudbury. Intended to meet the needs of northern Ontario, it received accreditation in 2004.

There are 2 weekly newspapers (one in Finnish) and one daily published in the city. Broadcasting is represented by 7 local radio stations (one owned by the CBC), CTV and CBC television affiliates - both owned and operated by the same company - TV Ontario and a wide variety of cable channels. Cultural industries, such as film and music production, graphic art and book publishing, are beginning to take root in the city.

City teams have won national titles in hockey and ski jumping. The curling rinks of Al Hackner (1982) and Heather Houston (1989) won world championships. Local athletes have successfully competed in Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan-American games. One example is Curt Harnett, who won medals for cycling in 3 Olympic games. The city has hosted the Ontario Winter Games (1976), the Canadian Figure Skating Championships (1980), several World Cup ski-jumping meets, the Canada Summer Games (1981), which left the city a $7.5-million multisport complex, and the Canadian Women's Curling Championship (1996). In 1995, Thunder Bay was the site of the World Nordic Games.

Further Reading

  • E. Arthur, Thunder Bay District, 1821-1902: A Collection of Documents (1973); G. Campbell, Thunder Bay, Ontario (1982); J.M. Mauro, A History of Thunder Bay (1981); T.J. Tronrud and A.E. Epp, eds, Thunder Bay: From Rivalry to Unity (1995).

External Links