We’re not exactly barren though. There is a thriving writers’ guild, and an annual workshop. Paul Shaffer of David Letterman fame (and a native of the city) recently keyed his memoirs. True crime writer Ron Chepesiuk was born here. My friend Duncan Weller won the Governor General’s Award (the most prestigious writing award in Canada, for you non-Canadian readers). Shelia Burnford wrote The Incredible Journey at her summer home just north of here. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once owned land here, and (I imagine) jotted down at least a few words as he passed through.
Even Washington Irving was commissioned to write about the Northwest Trading Company’s fur trading fort, where beaver pelts and furs were carried downstream to Montreal by the voyageurs. You know those top hats you read about in all the Dickens’ novels? Most of them started life as a beaver from Northwestern Ontario.
In fact for the past four hundred years, Thunder Bay has been known (if we’re know at all) more as a transportation hub, perched as it is on the edge of Lake Superior. Furs gave way to WWII fighter planes and grain – at one point, we were the largest grain port in the world. In the future, massive amounts of chromite, zinc, copper, and other minerals will pass through as the Ring of Fire mining area develops.
As you would expect from a port city, Thunder Bay is literally strewn along its shores. Although not big population-wise, it is nonetheless land-encompassing, stretching about 50 km (30 miles) along the coast.
Now you’d think that the focus of the city would be its harbour. You’d imagine vast beaches that would draw people down to the shore of this massive lake the holds North America to the map like a giant thumbtack. You’d just assume that the water would be the centre of city life, much like the harbours of Vancouver, Sydney, or even Grand Marais, MN. A skyline teeming with aquatic and near-aquatic activities.
For the most part, you’d be wrong.
In fact there is only about one mile of park and public lands in the whole stretch (well, maybe two if you count Chippewa Park in the far south). Almost all the lakeshore is industrial. Or at least it used to be. Today, much of the grain and goods go to Vancouver to feed the growing Asian markets instead. As a result, many of the grain elevators along the shore have been abandoned, and some torn down.
Sad in a way. But the land that is freed up can now be converted for new recreational activities. At the centre of the rejuvenation is Marina Park, which is undergoing a massive reconstruction. As we speak, they’re building a new Marketplace, splash pad/skating rink, condos, at least one hotel, restaurants, and more. The whole area will be a gathering place, a beautiful harbour front that the city deserves.
The architects and Powers That Be have decided to involve the Thunder Bay art community in the project. Visual artists are right now being selected for installations that will dot the grounds. And, this morning, I attended an on-site meeting in the construction zone that went through an RFP for writers that pointed out various locations where installations of short passages (75 words or less) will be featured. Nobody’s sure how these words will be presented. But they likely won’t just be interpretative signs or a plaque – more likely incorporated with a sculpture, carved into stone, or some similar setting.
There is one writer in particular who I believe should be involved in this project. Although he was born in Toronto, he started writing here in Thunder Bay – a literary figure who sharpened his quill right here in the Bay. He is certainly one of my biggest influences, especially in my early writing days. But if you live outside of Canada, you may not have heard of him.
That writer is Arthur Black.
Arthur Black worked at the local CBC radio station through the 70s and 80s. He also wrote a column in one of the local newspapers, Lakehead Living. They were informative-but-funny observational pieces. Witty commentaries, really, but with a down-home folksy charm. A natural storyteller, Arthur Black has a kind of a Seinfeld-esque approach (developed before Seinfeld, BTW) tying up many plot lines neatly at the end so that they all made sense – and more often than not, gave you a laugh.
Although Lakehead Living is long gone, you can see an example of his writing here to get an idea of what I mean: http://www.saultthisweek.com/ArticleDisplayGenContent.aspx?e=7279
Anyway, I emailed Arthur Black to tell him about the project. It’s the first time I’ve ever written him and told him what an influence he had on me. I also told him that I didn’t think such a project should go without a few words from him. It’s been years since he’s actually lived here, but I feel he’s as big a part of the historical literary scene here as anyone, before or since.
I was thrilled when Arthur Black emailed me back, thanking me for contacting him. I’m not sure if he’s going to make a submission himself, but I hope he does. Yes, I’ll be submitting a few strong words for consideration on this project too. Wouldn’t that be interesting, having his words and mine together on the same project? My words alongside the words of a writer I admire, who in a lot of ways helped me become the writer I am today (without actually knowing it…), together forever etched in the literary history of Thunder Bay.
Definitely something for the Writers’ Bucket List.