In 1970, two cities and two townships merged, creating Ontario’s sixth-largest city. But not everyone welcomed the arrival of the brand-new municipality
At midnight on January 1, 1970, a ceremony was held at the arch that had, until that moment, marked the boundary between the cities of Port Arthur and Fort William. Previously known as the Welcome Arch, it would henceforth be called the Unity Arch, marking a symbolic end to the long rivalry that had, as the Globe and Mail observed, seen the two communities “fighting over land, new businesses, railway lines, and sometimes just for the hell of it.”
As church bells rang and fireworks went off, a sign on the arch flashed “Happy Birthday Thunder Bay.” With that, Ontario’s newest city was born. But, amid the celebrations, there was a great deal of grumbling over how the amalgamation process in the Lakehead area had unfolded.
Beginning in the Victorian era, the twin cities on Lake Superior had developed a deep rivalry that frequently prevented any form of co-operation. Each had its own transit system: passengers had to get off at the boundary and pay another fare before crossing into the other city. Taxis from one city couldn’t seek fares in the other.
There were separate water systems, sewage facilities, fire and police services. When one city lowered its taxes, the other did the same, leading to infrastructure deficiencies. Children from the two communities were apparently taught to ridicule one another — according to local legend, mothers toilet-training their children in Fort William would tell them they had to flush because Port Arthur, which drew its water from the same source Fort William dumped its sewage into, “needs the water.”
Left to their own devices, the cities would likely never have come together. While Port Arthur supported a merger in a 1958 referendum, Fort William didn’t. Enter the province. Starting in the mid-1960s, premier John Robarts’s government had examined restructuring municipal government to support the province’s rapid growth and to reduce the costly duplication of infrastructure and services.
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