Why Thunder Bay expats are coming home

For years, young people have been leaving for school and work. But the city’s employment landscape is changing — and former residents are heading back to be a part of it
By Jon Thompson - Published on January 10, 2019
Carl Johnson, 58, remotely operates a rock crusher from inside Goldcorp's Thunder Bay office. (Jon Thompson)



THUNDER BAY — Carl Johnson studies a video screen and then angles a joystick. Seven-hundred kilometres north and 1.3 kilometres down, the arm on a rock breaker shifts in response.

Johnson, 58, is one of a dozen employees of Goldcorp, a Vancouver-based mining company, who use video-game-like controls to manipulate machinery in the Musselwhite Mine — from the comfort of armchairs in the company’s Thunder Bay office. All but one of them are Thunder Bayites who, after moving elsewhere in search of opportunity, have come back home.

For decades, studies have consistently shown that many young people leave northern communities for school, work, and life experience. Private-sector, white-collar employment opportunities are scarce — government, manufacturing, and retail jobs dominate in Thunder Bay. The region’s economy is boom and bust, fluctuating according the state of the forestry and mineral markets.

The “youth out-migration” trend and an aging population constitute a major demographic challenge for the north: a 2015 workforce planning study estimated that the Thunder Bay District (population 150,000) will need to add 50,000 new residents by 2041 simply in order to sustain its economy.

In response, the city’s Community Economic Development Commission has launched the “Go to Thunder Bay” campaign, which highlights the area’s 12-minute-average commute times, scenic wilderness, and affordable housing market because, as the website indicates, “among prospective new residents and prospective business investors there is a lack of awareness about the City and the opportunities that exist here.”

But there are some people who need little education about the north and are, in fact, ready and willing to relocate here: former Thunder Bay residents who would happily move back if they could have access to the right professional opportunities. Now, thanks to new technologies and remote-work options, they increasingly do.

Mike Bone, 35, left the north in 2006 and built a market-research career in Toronto. But by 2017, he was ready to start a family and move home. As a director with BrandSpark, he had the option to work remotely three days each week. So approached his boss with a radical relocation plan.

“I told him, ‘We’re going to move,’” Bone recalls. “When I said, ‘Thunder Bay,’ he said, ‘I didn’t know you were going to move that far.’ Because he knows where Thunder Bay is. I think he had thought Hamilton or Etobicoke.”

He pointed out that other employees spent two hours in transit every day and that, unlike those stuck in traffic, he’d be able to work during his airplane commute. (Today, Bone splits his time between Toronto and Thunder Bay, staying with friends or in hotels when he’s in the capital.)

That night, his boss was on the train and saw a “Go to Thunder Bay” ad urging Torontonians to pack up their lives and move to a place where they’d never have to endure a lengthy commute again.

He snapped a photo and sent it to Bone with the text, “I think it’s a sign.”

“I didn’t realize how much of a grind Toronto was until we left,” Bone says. “The speed at which you have to walk down the sidewalk or driving or how long it takes to do anything. You put up with it when you’re there because the things you can do there are great, but once you leave, it’s like, ‘It didn’t take me 45 minutes to get to the park.’”

The commission’s campaign isn’t geared toward expats, but CEO Doug Murray says that, for someone who had to leave or whose parents had to leave during the forestry industry downturn a decade ago, coming home just makes sense.

“I was born in Thunder Bay, I went away to university in Waterloo, and my career took me across the country. I finally got back here 10 years ago,” Murray says. “There’s nothing wrong with going out and getting seasoned, right? This [campaign] is attracting people to come back and say, ‘There are these opportunities.’”

For 35-year-old Jeff Coull, the opportunities are largely about friends and family. The director of professional services at Retalon, a software company, he leads a team of 12 Toronto-based employees from his home office. He misses getting to interact personally with his staff, but he likes the sense of community he rediscovered when he moved back to Thunder Bay in 2016

“My wife and I planned on starting a family, and both our families are here,” he says. “We also have an incredibly tight-knit group of friends. We still play hockey together; the men and women still play softball together. All the kids’ parties involve the same 30 families or so. That network is really important to us.”

Scott McNab is betting that remote and pop-up office work will itself become a sustainable segment of the local economy, particularly as Ontario’s mining sector is on the upswing.

Recently, he opened the Vault, Thunder Bay’s first co-work office space, in a former bank. He says that mining companies anticipating market growth and provincial support are already on the lookout for space in Thunder Bay.                                                            

“They’re coming, and they’re speculating,” McNab says. “They all have head offices in major centres. Thunder Bay’s a tertiary centre, but they still need to have the optics of professional working groups. They can’t run out of hotels or coffee shops. This is a virtual office.”

For Johnson, the remote-mining job with Goldcorp represents his first stint in an office. He spent most of his career in mining camps, raising his family on a schedule of two weeks onsite and two weeks back home. But since March, he has slept in his own bed every night and worked in warmth and safety — conditions not generally associated with the industry.

“I’m a white-collar worker now,” he says. “If you’d told me this back in ’79 when I started mining, I would have said you have rocks in your head. It’s impossible — yet here it is.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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