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This city was once a hub for newcomers from across Europe, but isolation and a weak economy have made 21st-century multiculturalism a distant dream. What has to change to encourage more diversity?

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Dharak Parekh, an eletronic-engineering graduate from Thunder Bay's Confederation College, bats at practice with his cricket team. Thunder Bay has only one cricket field to serve teams made up of entirely international students and recent graduates from India.Photography by Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Thunder Bay’s only cricket field, located in a public park in the middle of a quiet subdivision near the teaching hospital, is slightly unorthodox.

The pitch is lumpy and made of artificial turf. The wickets are held together with duct tape. Boundaries include a basketball hoop and a suburban street with parked cars, which everyone tries to avoid denting.

Among the hazards littering the field of play are two evergreens standing to the right of the batter – “Those are defenders,” jokes one regular player – and a squat white cable box to the left.

The chilly spring weather isn’t ideal, either, for a sport played with a bullet-hard ball and no gloves. Defenders often have to blow on their stinging hands after a catch.

None of that deters the couple of dozen players from Thunder Bay’s two postsecondary schools, Lakehead University and Confederation College, on a bright, windy afternoon in May in River Terrace Park. The schools only recently began fielding teams, and they are entirely populated by international students and recent graduates from India.

Lakehead jumps out to an early lead. The park echoes with a half-dozen Indian languages and the group’s lingua franca, English cricket banter. “Shotty, boy!” “Bowling, boy!” “Good running, boys!”

As Lakehead piles up runs, a player nicknamed Captain Cool lounges in the grass, waiting for his turn at bat, and extols Thunder Bay’s qualities as a cricket town.

“We play good in Thunder Bay,” he says. “This is our home.”

For a growing number of young Indian men, Thunder Bay really is home – as awkward and imperfect a home as the cricket field, but home nonetheless. The city’s foreign student population has spiked in the past decade from fewer than 200 to about 2,500, roughly half of them from India.

These young men and women are bucking the trend in Thunder Bay. The isolation, small size and economic stasis of this city of about 120,000 have generally repelled immigrants over the past 20 years. Less than 10 per cent of the population is foreign-born, which is actually lower than in 2001.

The cricket players point to a brighter future. For a place that hasn’t seen meaningful population growth for two generations and is trying to make the difficult transition from an industrial economy to a white-collar one, this influx of young, skilled migrants from South Asia should be a blessing.

But Captain Cool and his friends also embody a dilemma: Many newcomers to the city aren’t putting down roots.

International students, especially, tend to make a quick exit once they receive their degrees, depriving Thunder Bay of the lasting economic benefits that have allowed immigrant-rich cities to flourish across Canada.

On the day of the derby match, Shivam Patel, a 21-year-old Confederation alumnus, surveys the field and points to a handful of young men who are planning to leave in the coming months – Sathish, Rajkamal, Midhun, Parth, Harsh – many bound for jobs in Toronto or Edmonton or Vancouver.

It’s a problem faced by huge swaths of rural Canada and many small cities, but Mayor Bill Mauro recognizes the existential stakes for Thunder Bay in particular, a city that was built on immigration and is now struggling to rebuild itself the same way.

“On the one hand, [the international students] are just a fantastic success story for us,” he says during an interview in April. “But it’s the same as it’s always been … whether there’s enough economic opportunity here to keep young graduates.”

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On the Kaministiquia River, the decommissioned Riverside Grain elevator stands as a reminder of more prosperous times in Thunder Bay. Of the 29 grain elevators that once lined the waterfront, only seven still function today.

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Above, workers build the Canadian Pacific Railway east of Port Arthur, one of Thunder Bay's predecessor cities, in the early 1880s. Below, boats are equipped at the dock at the Canadian Car & Foundry Co. Ltd. in 1918-19. Rail travel and shipping were once magnets for immigration in the Thunder Bay area.Ontario Archives, Thunder Bay Archives

Thunder Bay has not always struggled to attract immigrants. In fact, at various times, the city has been an unexpected paragon of diversity.

In 1817, when it was still a fur trading post called Fort William, American businessman Ross Cox found the little community at the mouth of the Kaministiquia River to be downright “metropolitan.” Its role as a break-of-bulk point for traders entering the beaver-rich Canadian interior drew people from around the world, explains Jean Morrison in Superior Rendezvous-Place. That year’s annual meeting attracted merchants, soldiers and paddlers from as far afield as the Gold Coast of Africa, Hawaii and Bengal, who mixed freely with the Scottish, French-Canadian and Anishinaabe regulars at the fort. When the Canadian Pacific Railway came to the twin towns of Fort William and Port Arthur in the 1880s – they officially amalgamated in 1970 to form Thunder Bay – a second wave of immigration began at the lakehead, as peasants and bush workers from Finland, Italy, Ukraine and Poland flooded in. By the early 1960s, residents with British ancestry made up less than half the local population, according to an essay by historian A. Ernest Epp.

This demographic revolution didn’t happen seamlessly. Although most of the new migrants were white, many faced bitter xenophobia. Finns and Italians made up a large share of the city’s often restive working class, and local authorities routinely rounded up foreign-born activists for deportation – or worse. In April, 1930, two Finnish labour organizers in the nearby bush camps were found dead in a shallow creek, widely suspected of being murdered.

The stigma faced by immigrants of colour was even more overt. Postwar Thunder Bay featured an odd local tradition in which a white man named Hector Ede would dress in blackface and read children’s letters to Santa over the radio as a character called “George the Porter” – an homage the black Pullman porters who passed through this railway town are unlikely to have appreciated.

Still, by midcentury, the city’s immigrants had made Thunder Bay their own, as saunas, panzerottis and pierogies became integral parts of the local culture. Mr. Mauro said his Italian mother might have faced discrimination – she “could have told you stories” – but the mayor’s generation forged a kind of white-skinned mosaic – if not the United Nations, then perhaps the European Union. “Thunder Bay was a multicultural community long before Toronto,” he said. “We all grew up with significant ethnic diversity and we never thought twice about it.”

That legacy could help the city as it tries to attract and retain a new generation of immigrants. Right now, Thunder Bay is overwhelmingly European (82 per cent) and Indigenous (13 per cent) in origin, but that could be on the verge of changing.

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The Finnish Bookstore on Algoma Street first opened after the second world war as a book kiosk inside a coffee shop, opened by Richard Koskiniemi's grandparents. It quickly grew into a full bookstore and post office as more immigrants from Finland arrived and missed products from home. It moved to its current location in the 1960s and now mostly sells gifts and kitchen products.

In June, the federal Ministry of Immigration chose Thunder Bay to be part of a new program that aims to funnel economic migrants to rural and Northern communities that need labour and are willing to help settle newcomers. (A similar program rolled out for Atlantic Canada in 2017 is seen as a success.)

The city government supports the project, but some residents have been hostile to the idea. When Thunder Bay’s involvement was announced, a popular Facebook group lit up with racist invective. One user, who used a profile picture of Cameroonian basketball player and Toronto Raptors hero Pascal Siakam, said he was worried about giving “all these jobs to immigrants.”

Bigotry is an unpleasant fact of life for some newcomers to Thunder Bay. The city has a long-standing racial divide between white and Indigenous residents, but the prevalence of black and brown faces is a relatively new phenomenon around town, and that can lead to unpleasant attention.

Police Chief Sylvie Hauth has made a point of mentioning that the gang members driving Thunder Bay’s current crime wave are predominantly black, to the point that it is common to hear ordinary people say “coloured” gangs from Toronto are causing havoc on the city’s streets.

Newcomers have different ways of coping with the burden of looking different. A young man from a small Caribbean island who asked not to be identified said one bonus of the prevailing fear of black people is that no one has dared to mug him – a common enough problem in the city.

There can also be more straightforward advantages to being part of a small cultural community in Thunder Bay. Niseen Darwish and Zaher Toubaji are Syrian refugees who own Damascus Donair, a cozy hole-in-the-wall Middle Eastern restaurant in a gentrifying part of town. Business is good, says their daughter Hadeel – who speaks the best English in the family – since there’s so little competition from other shawarma places.

The federal Liberal Party has also lavished attention on the Toubaji family; they are rare local symbols of one of this government’s major initiatives, the private sponsorship of Syrian refugees. Ms. Darwish considers MP Patty Hajdu a “friend” and has pictures of the MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North hanging above the grill in her restaurant. The couple have even met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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At Damascus Donair, Zaher Toubaji lifts up four-year-old Eva, the daughter of his friend Layla Dbouk and Haitham Nasser, right. Mr. Toubaji and his wife are Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, the city’s lack of growth – Thunder Bay has roughly the same population it boasted in 1970 – allows for a pace of life that some immigrants actually quite like. While Hadeel, a 22-year-old Confederation student, says she doesn’t like the city because “there’s nothing to do here,” other newcomers say the lack of traffic and the quiet streets remind them pleasantly of home.

Dharak Parekh, a Confederation graduate in electronics engineering, is from the Indian state of Gujarat, where his parents are shopkeepers. Gujaratis are low-key people who mostly abstain from alcohol (the state is dry) and above all like to eat, Mr. Parekh says with a laugh. Coming from such a sleepy place makes him appreciate Thunder Bay and recoil from the bustle of Toronto.

He isn’t yet reconciled to a few odd local customs, such as serving rice with a fork rather than a spoon. (“I find this annoying," he says during a dinner at Masala Grille, eyeing the fork in his hand as if he has been asked to eat with a lawn mower.)

But for now, he’s happy here, with a new job as an IT technician at a tax and auditing firm, and that nice, quiet pace of life. “I’m not desperate to leave Thunder Bay,” he says.

It may be a slightly tepid endorsement, but it’s more than some of his friends could claim. Mr. Parekh used to live with five other Indian students in a big house in the city’s south end, but now he’s the only one left, with too much space and too much rent, after the others moved to Alberta or Southern Ontario. The latest to go, a slight, shy Confederation grad named Manthan, used to repair slot machines at the Thunder Bay casino but got a higher-paying job doing the same thing at a much bigger casino in Windsor.

“That’s the problem – you graduate and then you leave,” Mr. Parekh says. “I think that’s why Thunder Bay is not developing as much as it could."

During an earlier dinner, across town at the city’s other Indian restaurant, he seemed more upbeat. At that point, Manthan was still living with him. The two would stream endless hours of cricket on their laptops and play the video game Counter-Strike together.

But in the intervening six weeks, his group of friends has thinned out even further, and he seems to have come to the realization that not all Canadian cities are created equal.

“In India, people always think when you go to the West it’s like dreamland,” he says. “Now that I’ve been here, I know it’s not always like that. What’s the expression? ‘The grass is always greener.’ ”

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Dharak Parekh looks out at the cricket field's artificial turf during practice. He has a job as an IT technician at a tax and auditing firm, and for now, 'I’m not desperate to leave Thunder Bay,' he says.

He was speaking figuratively, of course. But it’s also literally true that one hardship of living in Thunder Bay, especially for immigrants from the global south, is the vanishingly short period in which the grass is actually green. For many young Indian men, the city’s long winters mean a short cricket season. In fact, the desire for better cricket facilities is a surprisingly common reason for Indian graduates to decamp for Toronto.

“It’s 50-50,” Shivam Patel says. “Either someone will go for a job or for cricket.”

(A spokesperson for the mayor did not respond to questions about whether the city has plans to improve local cricket facilities.)

The Commonwealth’s favourite sport truly is an obsession for Mr. Patel and his friends, but 50-50 might be skewing the ratio a little. The truth is, nothing draws graduates away from Thunder Bay like jobs. While the city has made some progress in developing a white-collar economy – the mayor boasts of the roughly 50 good jobs provided by the hospital’s angioplasty centre – it can’t come close to competing with Toronto or Vancouver.

“There are a handful of cities in Canada that are growing, and there are hundreds that are shrinking,” the mayor laments. “I think it’s only going to get more difficult. Artificial intelligence is just around the corner. Where are the jobs of the future going to come from? Places like Thunder Bay and Red Deer and Moose Jaw and Kapuskasing and Leamington and Cornwall – how are they going to maintain and keep their young families and their young people?”

The economic problems of small Canadian cities are particularly acute here. The decline of forestry and shipping, once among the city’s principal industries, has been a harsh blow. There used to be four pulp and paper mills in Thunder Bay, but just one remains. Of the 29 grain elevators that once lined the waterfront, only seven still function.

Nothing has filled that void. Good economic news, such as the founding of medical and law schools at Lakehead in the past 15 years, has been offset by declines elsewhere. The number of people employed in Thunder Bay is roughly the same as it was in 2001 – even as the rest of the country has seen job gains of almost 30 per cent. No Canadian city has a worse job-creation record in that period. The expected layoffs of 550 people from the city’s Bombardier plant is the most recent example of the bitter trend.

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Shipping was once a vital industry to Thunder Bay, and its decline, along with forestry and manufacturing, has left a dearth of jobs.

Today, the city’s pitch for itself is more about lifestyle than economic strength, reflected in the municipal slogan: “Superior by Nature.” Norm Gale, the city manager, boasts that Thunder Bay has the most affordable housing in Ontario, a beautiful lakefront setting and, more dubiously, the planet’s best-tasting tap water.

“Look out there,” he says in an interview. “Sleeping Giant [Peninsula]. Blue sky. Best water in the world. Have you tried our water?”

So far, the pitch isn’t working. Anto Stany personifies the problem as well as anyone. The 21-year-old, one of the players in the spring cricket match at River Terrace Park, is from the southern Indian state of Kerala. He studies recreational therapy at Confederation, learning to develop activities for elderly people in care homes, and he’ll be good at it: He looks like the ur-grandson, winsome and boyish and doe-eyed.

For now, he works at a Robin’s Donuts in Hogarth Riverview Manor, a local long-term care home that has been penalized by the provincial government for the emotional abuse and neglect of residents, including allowing one person’s bedding and clothing to become “completely saturated” with urine.

“I’ve seen so many people with handicaps,” he says. “There is no one to give love to them.”

Still, there are parts of his job that he likes. For a rural Indian, the pay is excellent: He makes $1,000 every other week, about twice what his father earns farming rubber and the tropical fruit rambutan back home in Kerala.

He also mostly likes the company of the seniors he meets at Hogarth. “Everybody loves watching ice hockey – it’s so fun to see,” he says. “If you look in their face, they look so happy. Everybody talks about Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Maple Leafs.”

But there are also aspects of life in Thunder Bay that make him uncomfortable. He has struggled to connect with non-Indians (“I don’t have even one Canadian friend. It’s so hard to make friends with them,” he says) and he doesn’t really understand the seniors asking why there are suddenly so many Indian people in Thunder Bay. “They sometimes joke that ‘there are more Indians here than we,’ ” he says with a stiff smile.

He doesn’t graduate until 2021, but he’s already planning his exit. In June, he went to explore Toronto – he has a brother in neighbouring Mississauga – and he’s also thought about Vancouver. He wants to be somewhere with more opportunities in the health sector.

As he discusses his plans in the shade of a spruce tree, well back from the wicket, he delivers a verdict that seems to speak for many of the young men joyfully playing an imported game, on a makeshift field, in a city they will soon leave behind.

“Thunder Bay is good,” he says. “But not to live.”

With a report from Matt Lundy

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