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Thunder Bay: The Beating Heart of Canada’s Transportation System

Dec 5, 2023

It’s true: the actual longitudinal centre of Canada is somewhere further west, next to a wheat field near Winnipeg. But Thunder Bay is Canada’s central transportation hub. If you send it across Canada by ship, rail, and/or truck – even if you sent it by some ultra-marathon, cross-country bike courier – you have to pass through the city. That’s not all. The Thunder Bay International Airport is the third-busiest in Ontario, making it a hub for air traffic as well. 
Thunder Bay is also a gateway to the U.S. Midwest, with Minnesota just 70 kilometres away by road, rail, ship, and air.
So what is it about Thunder Bay that makes it so unique? The obvious answer is geography. Thunder Bay is the western terminus in Canada for the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway, which reaches into the heart of the continent. The Port of Thunder Bay has shipped grain, iron ore, potash, and more to points around the globe for over a century. Grain and other goods coming from the west by rail – Canadian Pacific (CP) or Canadian Nation (CN) either transfer to ships here or continue on eastwards

.Thunder Bay The Beating Heart of Canada’s Transportation System

As for road travel – Northwestern Ontario’s rugged terrain of Canadian Shield and Boreal Forest is beautiful to look at, but it’s one of the most difficult environments on earth to build a highway. That’s one good reason why the Trans-Canada Highway is the only east-west corridor in this part of the country. All roads lead through Thunder Bay.
“It is an exciting time for Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario,” said Jamie Taylor, CEO of the Thunder Bay CEDC. “As the economic hub for the region, Thunder Bay is well positioned to support new business.”
But geography plays an even bigger role in Thunder Bay’s potential – and in ways that might surprise.

The Hub to, Well, Everywhere...
The flip side to Thunder Bay’s unique geographical position in Canada hundreds of kilometres from the next major urban area is that the city represents one of the most undeveloped areas in central Canada and along the Great Lakes. That translates into miles of opportunity.
The historical example – besides the grain elevators mentioned above – is forest products. The city’s pulp mill once fed the mighty presses of the Chicago Tribune, one of the United States’ most-read newspapers. Although the forestry industry around the world has declined, natural resources will play a major role in Thunder Bay’s economic future for the foreseeable future.
Take the coming mining boom. Already, the city is seeing direct signs of growth. Two mining companies have announced plans for separate lithium hydroxide conversion plants, strategically located near the port on Lake Superior. Economic benefits from other critical minerals used in electric vehicle (EV) battery production and the potential held in the Ring of Fire will also flow through Thunder Bay, one way or another.
But that’s not the only sign of activity. Energy projects abound including the recent completion of the East-West Tie and power lines heading north to connect with remote First Nations. Many off-grid First Nations have developed their own power sources using solar and hydroelectric.

Thunder Bay Harbour

Thunder Bay is also a regional health care hub – 1 in 5 people in the labour force work in health care or social services, making it the largest industry in the city’s economy. The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre is one of the few hospitals in the country with its own cyclotron for nuclear medicine and is building Ontario’s newest cardiac surgery program.
Manufacturing and technology sectors are growing, too. Both are embodied by a new imaging unit from Radialis that provides among other things an alternative to mammography for many women. All research, development, and now manufacturing happens right here in Thunder Bay.
“As traditional industries undergo transformative changes, Thunder Bay is increasingly drawing the attention of fresh opportunities and perspectives,” Taylor said.
Education, Thunder Bay’s third-largest industry, is another area of growth. Confederation College, Lakehead University, Northern Ontario School of Medicine University, Lakehead’s relatively new Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, and other educational institutions make Thunder Bay an academic hub. Lakehead consistently sits at or near the top of schools across Canada for undergrad research opportunities.
The other top 10 industries in Thunder Bay include Retail trade; Construction; Public administration; Accommodation and food services; Transportation and warehousing; Professional, scientific and technical services; Services other than public administration; and Manufacturing.
“Thunder Bay’s economy is diverse,” said Lucy Kwiaton, Business Development Manager, Thunder Bay CEDC. “The area blends abundant natural resources, entrepreneurial small- and medium-sized enterprises, and cutting-edge research capabilities.”

Thunder Bay Wide Open - for Business
Thunder Bay and area is the perfect blend of established infrastructure and room for growth. Besides the obvious advantages of this untapped potential, there are cost advantages, too. Compared to even a small U.S. city, Minneapolis, costs in Thunder Bay are about 22% lower for corporate services, 21% lower for R&D, and 22% lower for digital industries.
For many, the out-of-the-way location is in itself extremely helpful for getting work done. Plus, as mentioned above, Thunder Bay supply chains are connected to everywhere by ship, rail, and truck, and downtown Toronto is only a two-hour plane ride away. There are land and services available to support manufacturing, industrial activities, digital and high-tech, medical research, academic activities, retail, wholesale, professional services, and more. 

When it comes to mining, Thunder Bay is in the thick of the next critical mineral boom. Exploration and mine operations are ramping up – the number of active mines in Northwestern Ontario is expected to grow as new lithium, copper, platinum, and gold mines start production over the next 5-10 years.
If you make it, research it, support it, or dig it, there is a place for you to do it in Thunder Bay.
“Our commitment to research and innovation is breathing new life into our traditional forestry and mining sectors, while the merging of science and technology is fostering rapid growth in health care and education,” Kwiaton said. “The remarkable spirit of creativity and innovation among our local entrepreneurs has given rise to thriving small business clusters and the emergence of vibrant new sectors in local food, agriculture, and tourism.”

Find Your Opportunity in Thunder Bay
The Thunder Bay Corporate Economic Development Commission (CEDC) can help. The CEDC offers a number of supports for businesses relocating or starting up in Thunder Bay, from identifying potential office, warehouse, and production space to connecting you with professional services and labour. “When considering Thunder Bay, the CEDC stands as your primary resource,” Taylor said. “Our dedicated team of business experts are ready to help you make the right connections. I invite anyone considering Thunder Bay to join us and be part of this exciting journey.”
Thunder Bay isn’t just open for business; we’re here to help give your business every chance for success.
Find out more at:  https://gotothunderbay.ca/site-selectors

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