When the Press Had Bite: Thunder Bay’s The Black Fly

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Gary Genosko

As a cultural figure, the black fly is associated with Canadian folk singer and songwriter Wade Hemsworth who composed The Blackfly Song in 1949. Just as Hemsworth described the bloodthirsty fly’s ‘picking his bones’ while working on a survey crew in northern Ontario, the newspaper I discuss in this article promoted itself as having similar irritating attributes, but with a social and political focus.

A Northwestern Ontario (NWO) radical citizen’s newspaper, The Black Fly was published in Thunder Bay over the course of only a few years. With a rotating cadre of staffers every month built around a few stalwart figures, The Black Fly stretched from December 1973 to March 1975. It folded after only twelve issues.

The community newspaper reported on current social, political, and economic issues affecting quality of life in NWO. Like its insect namesake, it was a nuisance to power.

Many of the issues discussed in its pages are still relevant today. In fact, some of the roots of the food culture renaissance in Thunder Bay currently underway can be traced to the paper’s concerns about the effects of high-priced, mass-produced, low quality food on the city’s robust local dairies, breweries, market farmers, and food co-operative ventures. These were investigated regularly in The Black Fly by Jim Harding, a retired professor of justice studies from University of Regina. Harding’s partner, Janet Stoody, provided typesetting and proofreading support. Other consumer advocacy issues, with a few articles on the anti-psychiatry movement courtesy of Estelle Freedlander (active in the newsletter, The Northern Woman, founded in 1973) and the art of local gardening by Graham Saunders (former president of Environment North and author of the book, Gardening with Short Growing Seasons), were mixed with regular overviews of the latest boycotts, problems with pollution from resource extraction industries, and women’s and Indigenous issues as well as broader trends in labour politics.

The Black Fly aligned itself ideologically with the muckraking spirit of American consumer advocate, Ralph Nader. Nader’s critique of the safety record of the automobile industry and agitation for robust consumer protection laws was de rigueur among members of the extended protest community around the newspaper at the time. He attended the breakthrough ‘Generations’ environmental conference as an invited guest speaker, which was held at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay in early August 1976. Following the demise of The Black Fly in 1975 but carrying forward its spirit, this three-day event saw Nader express concerns about the role of government secrecy in perpetuating environmental racism in terms of inadequate responses to mercury pollution. Indigenous leaders from Whitedog First Nation (now part of Wabassemoong Independent First Nations) spoke of provincial inaction as well as the economic and cultural impacts on First Nations, sport fishing, and lodges along the affected waterway system. The system in question comprised the English-Wabigoon Rivers and adjacent lakes located northwest of Dryden, Ontario—the site of massive discharges of mercury in the 1960s and 1970s.

The founding of The Black Fly took place during a robust period of grassroots social innovation in Thunder Bay. The NWO Women’s Centre was founded in 1974 on the heels of the Northern Women’s Conference that took place the previous year. In the December 1973 issue of The Northern Woman, readers were encouraged to pick up a copy of The Black Fly for a mere 25 cents. Like The Northern Woman monthly newsletter with its volley of ‘Boos and Bravos’ directed at local institutions, The Black Fly also relished taking bites out of its commercial competitors in the local Northwestern Ontario media over coverage of environmental issues, electoral politics, and Indigenous issues.

Typed advertisement. Extract from The Northern Woman VII (December 1973), p. 1. CC BY-NC 4.0 DEED: Attribution Non-Commercial.

By June 1974, The Black Fly’s core production group were feeling their own personal-spiritual “energy crisis.” This referred ironically to the Energy Crisis of 1973-74 caused by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) oil embargo. They sought to restructure the newspaper, but were unable to last a full year after that.

Progressive media outlets in Thunder Bay have been few and far between. An exception was the short-lived Thunder Bay Independent Media Centre in the mid-2000s, which dealt with many of the same issues and social protests around industrial pollution as The Black Fly. It faded under a deluge of attacks by trolls and bots on its servers. In particular, the key eco-political issue for both media outlets was mercury poisoning and its remediation, especially its long-term impact on Indigenous communities such as Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Today, the alternative media landscape in Thunder Bay is confined to an advertising vehicle with cultural consumption as its mandate (The Walleye). Since Thomson Corporation sold most of its newspapers in 2001, including its daily Thunder Bay paper The Chronicle-Journal (acquired by Horizon Media Operations, now Continental), and discontinued sending print copies of its flagship paper, The Globe & Mail, to the city in 2012, Thunder Bay has been short even on corporate newspapers. Finnish-language newspapers produced in Thunder Bay to serve its large diasporic community stretch back to the early twentieth century, which may contain distant precursors to issues discussed in The Black Fly given their emphasis on working-class and co-operative movements. But despite this important history of publishing in Thunder Bay, a more recent general news weekly designed for Finnish Canadians, Kanadan Sanomat, ceased production in Thunder Bay over ten years ago and moved its base to Toronto.

Thunder Bay’s The Black Fly was a short-lived social experiment in independent publishing that mobilized the reputation of the pesky creature to further its social and political goals. Interested in learning more? Physical copies of The Black Fly are available in the Special Regional Collection at Lakehead University Library in Thunder Bay. They are not online.

Gary Genosko spent his early academic career at Lakehead University where he held a Canada Research Chair in Technoculture from 2002 to 12. He is now professor of Communication and Digital Media at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa. He retains a keen interest in the cultural politics of post-industrial regional cities in Ontario. He acknowledges the research assistance of David Peerla.

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