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Canada Peaks and valleys: A ski-jumping legend ponders Thunder Bay’s past and present

Steve Collins, a member of the Fort William First Nation, looks out at the city of Thunder Bay from Mount McKay. A former ski jumper, he competed for Canada at the Olympics three times in the 1980s.

Photography by David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

He pierced the sky like a super hero in action. Arms pinned at his side. His skis spread in a V-formation riding that chilled mountain air for as long as he could. It was classic Steve Collins, the 15-year-old virtuoso who could soar with the best and surpass many of them, too.

Not that Mr. Collins would brag about it. He would shrug his shoulders and say he was just a teenager from Fort William First Nation, next to Thunder Bay. Decades after his rise to the top of Canadian ski jumping, Mr. Collins, who now works at the arena in Fort William First Nation, is disheartened by what he sees and hears in Thunder Bay.

Indigenous youth found dead near or in the Kaministiquia River and Neebing-McIntyre Floodway. A predominantly white police force found, by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, to be rife with racism against Indigenous people. The city’s police services board dismantled for turning a blind eye to the issue. Store employees accused of following and harassing Indigenous customers. An Ojibwa woman, Barbara Kentner, struck by a trailer hitch from a passing car while walking with her sister. Someone in the vehicle yelled, “Yeah, I got one of them.” Ms. Kentner died six months later.

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For Mr. Collins, the 55-year-old sporting legend, all this is incomprehensible. This is not the Thunder Bay of his youth. “Sure, there was racism when I was a kid, but not like it is today,” says Mr. Collins, who competed for Canada at three Winter Olympics between 1980 and 1988. He did so as the only Indigenous jumper on the national team.

“Our reserve is so close to the city it was like the welcoming party when the ski jumpers returned home [from events around the world],” he recalls. “But that has changed here. It has changed quite a bit.”

The Sleeping Giant looms behind Thunder Bay as Mr. Collins walks on the mountain.

Thunder Bay is blessed with a multitude of natural attractions – Lake Superior, Mount McKay, Ouimet Canyon, Kakabeka Falls, the Sleeping Giant and the many nearby fresh-water lakes that call to anglers and hunters like no other place. “Superior, by nature” was an advertising campaign for tourists to come visit, maybe put down roots.

Mr. Collins’s father, Charlie Jr., worked 35 years for the City of Thunder Bay, many of them as a parks and recreation supervisor. He died in April, 2011, from colon cancer. His grandfather Charlie Sr., who was Ojibwa, was the first of the Collins to settle in the presence of Mount McKay, elevation 480 metres. It was Charlie Sr. who taught his son, who then taught Mr. Collins how to hunt, fish and live off such bountiful land. They had their favourite spots and would relax there and talk about life, nature and sports.

At 11, Mr. Collins had a decision to make between ski jumping and minor hockey: His father couldn’t afford the cost of both. Choosing to fly, Mr. Collins used regular skis to perfect freestyle flips and flights off kid-friendly jumps before he was given free rein on the professionally built runs at Mount McKay, then a national training centre for ski jumping and a host to international competitions.

Four years later at Lake Placid, N.Y., the then-15-year-old placed ninth in the individual large hill event, a stunning result for someone making an Olympic debut. Later that same year in 1980, he set a record for the longest jump off a 90-metre hill – 128.5 metres. Think of flying the length of a Canadian Football League field, 110 yards, with another 30 added on for good measure.

Mr. Collins broke the distance record on his home hill Big Thunder in Thunder Bay. It was a special moment for him, his family, friends and teammates. Horst Bulau proved a valuable contributor to Mr. Collins’s success by getting him to do more. The Ottawa-born Mr. Bulau scored 13 World Cup victories in his career. He and Mr. Collins were fan favourites in Scandinavia and Europe. They especially liked Mr. Collins, who was listed in a media guide as being 5-foot-5 and weighing 126 pounds. A flea at the circus.

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Today, Mr. Collins maintains the Fort William hockey arena, and is a mentor to the youth who play there.

When his competitive jumping days ended in 1992, Mr. Collins returned to Fort William First Nation and did home construction and renovation work before landing his job at the arena. While there, he has not only kept the facility safe and the ice clean, he’s also become a mentor to the kids who gather at the arena. Through sport, he sees a way to instill camaraderie and a strong work ethic among the youngsters, to keep them out of trouble and help bridge the divide between Thunder Bay and Indigenous people.

For all he did for Canada and for his sport, Mr. Collins was presented with the 1979 Tom Longboat Award, which goes to the year’s top Indigenous Canadian athlete. He was also in contention for the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s best athlete in 1980. He came in third place behind Terry Fox and Wayne Gretzky. “The only way you’re going to make yourself better is to compete hard at it, train hard at it,” Mr. Collins tells kids, “because, really … you only have one chance.”

To make the most of that one shot, Mr. Collins warns youngsters about drugs. All manner of opioids have poured into the city as rival gangs from Manitoba and Southern Ontario fight one another for a bigger stake in the trade.

Mr. Collins wants to empower Indigenous youth by connecting them with current or former professional hockey players, such as Kale Kerbashian. He was born in Thunder Bay and played for the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights before going pro. He was a centreman with good hands who never made it to the National Hockey League, but spent time with more than 11 teams in six pro leagues, including the Slovak Extraliga. The Fort William First Nation arena provides Mr. Kerbashian with free ice time so he can practise. In return, the 29-year-old talks to the kids who come to work on their skills and team-play. “When I was 14, I was fortunate enough to train with [former Chicago Blackhawks forward] Patrick Sharp in the summer,” says Mr. Kerbashian. “Just being around him, watching him was good for me.”

Remembering how it felt to be young and impressionable, Mr. Collins can see how it all fits together – as other pro hockey players drop by the arena and practise with Fort William youth to show them how to stickhandle and shoot because, with opportunity and hard work, they can dream of greatness.

Sometimes, they can even fly.

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