Charity and Repairing the World (Literary Journalism — Draft # 1)

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain

Saul Laskin was born in Fort William, Ontario on May 15, 1918. His parents, Mendel and Bluma Laskin were Russian Jewish immigrant; Saul and his two brothers were first generation Canadian. The Ontario Jewish Archives recall how the Laskin family valued education. When it was time for the eldest son, Bora to attend university, Bluma, (known as Dolly) moved with her three sons to Toronto. Mendel, (known as Max) remained in Port Arthur operating his grocery store, (which later expanded to a furniture store) and took borders into their home to earn extra money to send to his wife and boys. The second son, Charles was also able to attend university, but when it was Saul’s turn, the finances were just not there.

Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon

While Bora Laskin’s career kept him in Toronto and Charles Laskin’s career resulted in his move to Winnipeg, Saul Laskin came home to Port Arthur, and joined his father in business. Eventually he took over ownership of the business from his father, and settled down and married Adele Tritt in 1946. Their union produced five children; three daughters, and two sons.

Saul Laskin did not let his lack of university education make him bitter or jealous of his brothers. Instead he got on with living. He created a family. He grew his business. He became part of a community. Saul believed in tzedakah (Hebrew for charity) and tikun olam (Hebrew for repairing the world). In 1959, he began his political career; first becoming an alderman in Port Arthur. He then when on to serve as mayor of Port Arthur from 1962 to 1969, and it was within this timeframe his leadership and passion were instrumental in the successful amalgamation of Port Arthur and Fort William in 1970; becoming the city of Thunder Bay.

There had been whispers of amalgamation for these two cities in previous years. However, the whispers were silenced when the results of both the 1920 and 1958 plebiscites. In his Master of History thesis, David Edward Achtenberg tells of how the breakdown happened. It seems the questions on the plebiscites were construed differently by each city. Fort William chose to see the question as asking if there should be a study conducted to weigh benefits and problems of amalgamation; whereas Port Arthur understood that the question strictly asked to amalgamate or not. Port Arthur’s interpretation of the question was supported. However, the public felt there was not enough information to make an informed decision. This combined with strained relationships saw the 1958 plebiscite defeated too. The public did not see any real benefit in amalgamation.

Enter Saul Laskin. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Port Arthur and Fort William were like many other municipalities — they were experiencing problems with urbanization; running out of residentially zoned areas. This resulted in uncontrolled growth in the areas bordering the cities; citizens were accessing city services but not paying for them. As mayor of Port Arthur, Laskin played an integral part in the setting of the stage for the amalgamation of Port Arthur and Fort William. It was Laskin’s leadership that saw him initially asked assistance of the provincial government in 1964 to review the local government in the Lakehead. (Lakehead was the unofficial name used when referring to the combined cities of Port Arthur and Fort William.) Achtenberg advises how Laskin’s request was turned down as the provincial government required that all parties be involved in the request. This meant that Laskin would have to convince not only the mayor of Fort William, but the reeves of the neighboring municipalities of Paipoonge, Shuniah, and Neebing. Laskin went to work, and by February 1965 he had the second request in front of the provincial government. The request for review was accepted as all the municipalities involved had agreed. In addition the Lakehead Chamber of Commerce, and the Fort William-Port Arthur and District Trade Council had endorsed the request.

During this time, the provincial government recognized that the municipal governments required restricting and assistance with responsibilities thrust upon them. Eric Hardy, an independent review commission was appointed by the provincial government. Hardy set out the Lakehead Local Government review’s term of reference. Data was collected, formal written submissions from municipal officials were done, and formal hearings were set. All was published for the public. Many options were set forth to Hardy. Port Arthur wanted amalgamation. Fort William, Paipoonge, Shuniah, and Neebing separately proposed a two-tier local government system. (similar to what the provincial government was advocating for regional government) The result was that Eric Hardy’s 1968 report recommended amalgamation of Port Arthur, Fort William, and inclusion of Shuniah and Neebing. The provincial government agreed with Hardy’s recommendation and quickly worked towards amalgamation. A key figure at this time was Minister of Municipal Affairs, Darcy McKeough. He introduced legislation for the amalgamation of Port Arthur and Fort William to become Thunder Bay.

On the morning of July 3, 1969, the citizens of Fort William and Port Arthur sat at their kitchen tables drinking coffee, and reading the local newspapers that announced to them that their new city would be named, Thunder Bay. The June 23rd plebiscite had provided three options to vote upon: Thunder Bay, The Lakehead, and Lakehead. The official date of amalgamation would be January 1, 1970. A new year — a new decade — a new name. Mayor Laskin told Fort William’s, Daily Times-Journal that promotion of the new city would come from the city’s pockets and other schemes that would generate revenue; such as bumper stickers and postcards.

Selkirk High School Auditorium was chosen as the site. The date is Friday, January 2, 1970. Upon entering the auditorium, the hundreds of people that came to stand witness to this historic event were greeted with the banner that hung above the stage. It stated THE CORPORATION OF THE CITY OF THUNDER BAY. The name was adorned with the new coat of arms which was a blended combination of the coat of arms of Port Arthur and Fort William. As the City of Thunder Bay’s website describes, it took from Port Arthur Arms and signifying the motto, “The Gateway to the West”, is “a sun splendor, the face charged with the castellated gateway, the portcullis raised”. The wavy blue and white bars below the gateway represent the waters of Lake Superior. As well the moose with silver collar, the sheaf of wheat and salmon. From the Fort William Arms came the Beaver and the North West Company slogan dated from 1783, “Perseverance”, and depicted in a scroll emerging from the branches of a pine tree. Included from the Shield in Chief of the Fort William Arms is the Voyageur Great Canoe bearing a Northwest Company agent and his paddlers. On the dexter side supporting the shield, stands a Voyageur as he appeared in the Fort William Arms. The Sleeping Giant outlined as the base was an added feature to the new coat of arms of the city of Thunder Bay.

Fort William’s, Daily Times-Journal reported that Mayor Laskin addressed the audience stating, “Everyone has a part of play in the City of Thunder Bay. Let us all have faith in our ability to create a great city.” The ceremony included the swearing in of the mayor and the twelve members of council. They took the oath of office from Attorney-General Arthur A. Wishart. Minister of Municipal Affairs, Darcy McKeough, referred to as, “The Father of Amalgamation” presented Mayor Laskin with a framed copy of BILL 118 — the act incorporating the city.

With a stroke of a pen, Saul Laskin was no longer mayor of Port Arthur, but now would be known from this day forth as the first mayor of Thunder Bay. He served as mayor of the new city from 1970–1972. After the first year, Laskin was able to state, “the worst is over”. Port Arthur’s, News-Chronicle reported on January 12, 1971 that Laskin felt the integration of various work operations was one of the main benefits of amalgamation. At the first city council meeting of 1971, a six page report listed events that had occurred during the last year. In the second, and final year of his term, Laskin stated in the 1972 budget address that, “amalgamation has had a dramatic effect on the tax rate. The favorable results in the main have been reached because we are under one administration.” The News-Chronicle’s May 10, 1972 edition went on to quote the mayor in calling for, “residents to drop their air of negativism.” He went on to say that, “This pay-as-you-go policy is a realistic approach to minimize debentures and does have a reflection on our debt position.” Mayor Laskin instructed that, “future councils would be wise to continue this policy.”

Upon completion of his term as mayor, Laskin continued to give back to his community through his membership in organizations such as the Royal Canadian Legion, the Chamber of Commerce, Congregation Darchei Noam, and the Board of Governors of Lakehead University for 15 years. Lakehead University bestowed with an honorary doctorate and title Fellow of Lakehead University.

In the late 1980’s, Laskin retired from the furniture business, and he and his wife Adele moved from Thunder Bay to Toronto. It is as this time in his life that Saul Laskin was able to achieve a goal that he was unable to attain as a young man. At the age of 81, he obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree from Lakehead University through a distance education program.

The life of Saul Laskin is a testament to grabbing life by the reins, seizing the day, and making lemonade out of lemons. From his humble beginnings where he learned at the knee of his parents about sacrifice, this man became the leader that showed the communities of Port Arthur and Fort William how to put aside rivalries to come together for the greater good. His leadership provided calm seas in the midst of a political storm. He repaired the world for the citizens of Thunder Bay, and was charitable with his time to his community. Well done Mr. Laskin.

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