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For a community where simmering racism can escalate into open conflict, this 70-year-old eatery is a neutral ground for all

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Jake MacLaurin, middle, bites into a Coney dog at Coney Island Westfort in Thunder Bay. Jake, a member of the nearby Fort William First Nation, often comes to the diner with his sons Odin, 7, left, and Donald, 10.Photography by Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The smell of coffee, cumin and hot-dog water fills the Coney as Jake MacLaurin contemplates an important question:

What is it about this place?

How did Coney Island Westfort, a 70-year-old diner in a working-class part of Thunder Bay, become as much a haven as a restaurant?

Jake thinks about it while he jokes with a waitress about his belly. He thinks about it some more while he eats. He’s having two dogs and a burger with everything, everything being diced onions, yellow mustard and a mysterious red chili called Coney sauce that is the house specialty and an essential local dish.

There’s a lot to think about. Conflict is baked into everything in Thunder Bay, which is among the country’s per capita leaders in murders and hate crimes.

But conflict passes over the Coney. Amid its cramped booths and rickety lunch-counter stools, letter-board menus and out-of-date Pepsi signs, an oasis of racial harmony has emerged.

It starts with the fact that people are crazy about the place. Some go straight from the airport when their flights land. An expat once asked owner Effie Saites to mail a tub of sauce to his home in China.

More important, the Coney is a place where people “lay down their swords,” said Damien Lee, Jake’s brother and fellow member of the neighbouring Fort William First Nation.

The diner is “neutral ground,” said Georjann Morriseau, the band’s former chief.

“You go in there and it’s, ‘Hey: Switzerland.’ ”

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Waitresses Deanne Bannon, far left, and Roxanne Dumais chat with customers on a July day at Coney Island Westfort. Deanne is from Fort William First Nation, and Roxanne's parents are French-Canadian.

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Other than the Coney dog, popular orders at the diner include the Coney burger and the hamburger nip, a dish of burger and fries with gravy on top, but no Coney sauce.

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Victoria (Effie) Saites, 75, serves up a plate of hamburger nips. She has run the diner for 52 years.

At least five spots in Thunder Bay specialize in classic Coney sauce, each with its own secret recipes and fierce partisans. (Nothing in the city, not even Coney sauce, is exempt from argument.)

But Coney Island Westfort is in its own league. It tidily represents and, at times, transcends its hometown – showing what Thunder Bay could be.

That may sound like a high-flown description for a dingy diner, but places worthy of such praise are rare in Thunder Bay. Local businesses can be notoriously unwelcoming toward Indigenous people, who often report being followed by suspicious shopkeepers. In February, a security guard at a local Shoppers Drug Mart was charged with assault for slamming a First Nations teenager into the ground.

Recognizing the scale of the problem, a group of citizens launched a campaign called Wake the Giant earlier this year, providing stickers for businesses to put in their windows that indicate they are a “safe space” for Indigenous people.

Coney Island doesn’t have a sticker. It came by its status as a safe space organically. It helps that it’s situated between two worlds: just across the river from Fort William First Nation, where the Coney is venerated, but also in the heart of white, working-class Westfort, a neighbourhood surrounded by mills, factories and grain elevators.

“There’s something about the working-class side of Westfort that creates that kind of common ground with folks from the rez,” Mr. Lee said.

How to make a Coney dog with everything on it: First the bun, then the dog, then yellow mustard, then the mysterious red Coney sauce, then diced onions.

It also matters that Thunder Bay’s white working class is more cosmopolitan than in many places. Waves of European immigration in the first half of the 20th century yielded a rich local culture centred on food, from Finnish pancakes to the pink-glazed cinnamon donuts called Persians.

Coney dogs are part of this worldly buffet. Their distinctive cumin taste suggests a Mediterranean lineage, and by all accounts, Greek migrants to Detroit invented the dish, naming it after the famous New York neighbourhood they passed through on their journey west before bringing it to cities across the upper Great Lakes.

Most Coney spots in Thunder Bay are still run by Greek families. That includes Coney Island Westfort and the woman who has run it for the past 52 years, Victoria (Effie) Saites. Stooped but energetic, with chestnut hair and a gold crucifix around her neck, she still takes short orders in the kitchen and reveals her playful streak by threatening picky eaters with a wooden spoon. Effie is especially beloved on the reserve, where some people call her Mom. The affection is mutual. “That’s my friends up there, all of them,” she said.

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Effie cleans dishes in the kitchen.

Effie hires colour-blind, too. Waitresses Deanne Bannon and Roxanne Dumais are proof. Deanne is from Fort William First Nation, and Roxanne has French-Canadian parents, but both have the same salty, casual rapport with customers, like a pair of vaudevillians behind the lunch counter. (Roxanne is the more demonstrative Hardy to Deanne’s Laurel.)

The restaurant is small enough – about as wide as a train’s dining car – to encourage banter. Deanne came in on her day off recently with her young daughter and began teasing an elderly regular named George, who sat chuckling on his stool, nursing a coffee. “Hi, George! Want a kid?” she said, gesturing at her daughter. “She’s nice!”

“We don’t treat anybody different,” Roxanne said, through her squinting smile. “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

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Roxanne chats with a customer from behind the counter.

But the city’s problems don’t just breeze past Coney Island’s door. The neighbourhood is badly scarred by Thunder Bay’s industrial decline – a methadone clinic recently replaced a popular coffee shop – and troubled customers are a reminder of the world outside.

One evening this spring, a couple caused some confusion about a to-go order when the man returned with a filament of melted cheese hanging from his mouth to demand what may or may not have been his second carton of chocolate milk.

“Don’t do drugs,” Roxanne muttered under her breath as the couple drove off in a beaten-up gold sedan. “Thunder Bay never used to be like this.”

Still, amid the turbulence and racial tension of the city, Coney Island remains an escape, a place apart. The question of why remains tricky, but finally, as he scarfs a fry, Jake offers an answer.

“Nobody would want to risk getting thrown out of here!” he said.

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Jake, another satisfied customer, gives his sons a hug.

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