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A view from above the James Street Swing Bridge, which connects the former city of Fort William, now referred to as West Fort in Thunder Bay's west end, to the Fort William First Nation.

David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Peter Raffo is an author and adjunct professor at Lakehead University who is working on a history of the founding of Thunder Bay.

Does one celebrate the 50th anniversary of a forced marriage?

Led by Saul Laskin, then the mayor of Port Arthur, the province of Ontario amalgamated the twin cities at the head of Lake Superior in 1970, even though Fort William, Port Arthur’s neighbour, felt railroaded into the enterprise. Calls for a plebiscite were ignored, but people were at least given the opportunity to vote on the name of the new city; offered the choice between three – Thunder Bay, Lakehead and The Lakehead – the latter two split the vote, unsurprisingly.

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So it was an inauspicious start. Supporters of the project said it would take a generation for the city to accept its new identity. Well, it’s taken a bit longer than that. Part of the reason for this lies in one of the legacies of amalgamation. Thunder Bay has two downtowns, stitched together with a freeway and retail centre between them; there’s not much “identity” there. And as a city committee plans various events to mark the 50th anniversary of the amalgamation in 2020, the theme will be the encouragement of “civic pride” – perhaps a necessary reminder.

Today, you’ll still find people who say they regret the loss of the original cities. They come from an older generation that feels Thunder Bay does not measure up to what they felt about Port Arthur and Fort William. But younger people, newcomers, First Nations peoples from the near and far North have no such nostalgia for the past.

It’s pretty certain that Thunder Bay still lacks the sense of self that characterized the twin cities. That can only emerge out of a shared history over a length of time, forged through social, economic, cultural and especially sporting events. Rivalries, both in and out of sporting arenas, helped each community grow and prosper: They competed with offers of generous tax breaks to lure new business and industry to their cities, while hockey teams fought bitterly for local supremacy.

They also shared a sense of isolation from the rest of the province. Toronto was 1,500 kilometres away. The nearest large cities, Winnipeg to the west and Sault Ste. Marie to the east, are 700 km away. They both accused Queen’s Park of “neglect of the north” – with some justification.

Occasionally, they even tried to put their differences aside. In 1920 and 1958, they each held plebiscites on a union. In both cases, Port Arthur voted in favour, Fort William against. Once, at the end of the 1940s, Charlie Cox – a charismatic ex-mayor of Port Arthur – tried (and failed) to get his name on the ballot for mayor of both cities at the same time.

So there’s good reason why memories of the twin cities should linger in the minds of many. That doesn’t mean they yearn for the past. There is a feeling that, by moving into a new era, an older and meaningful identity has been lost. It’s only natural.

It cannot be denied, however, that Thunder Bay has gone through some troubles over the years. The forest industries, once the backbone of local prosperity, have been hit. Where once there were four paper mills in operation, there is now one. The number of working grain elevators is in decline. The local branch of the engineering company Bombardier is planning to lay off half of its employees.

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First Nations peoples, now rapidly increasing in numbers, are frequently subjected to racial abuse and, sometimes, violence. Thunder Bay, like other major cities in Canada, is experiencing serious drug-related crime.

This is not the fault of amalgamation. In fact, the city has benefited in many ways from it. The two cities individually could not have successfully bid for the Canada Games in 1981. Neither could they have separately built a community auditorium with acoustics that are considered comparable to the best in Canada.

There is a modern hospital that serves the whole of the northwestern region – an area the size of France. The waterfront marina in the north end of the city has won 17 international and national awards for its beauty and design. Culture and the arts are thriving, while the digital age is lessening its sense of isolation from the rest of Canada and the world.

Fifty years after the birth of Thunder Bay, there are signs of a growing maturity. Maybe it’s time for an anniversary celebration, after all.

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