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The James Street swing bridge has reopened to vehicular traffic, once again connecting the Fort William First Nation to Thunder Bay.

David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

When the sun rose over Thunder Bay on Monday, illuminating the rusted girders of the James Street bridge, it revealed a welcome sight: weekday morning traffic flowing in a steady stream back and forth across the Kaministiquia River for the first time in six years.

But there’s still a problem with the decades-old link between the Fort William First Nation on the south side of the river and the city on the north. It looks as if fire trucks will not be able to travel on the reopened bridge to get to the First Nation.

Thus a repair that was supposed to help heal a division between Fort William and the rest of the city could end up underlining the enduring gap instead.

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A fire closed the bridge in 2013. Residents of the First Nation had to make a time-consuming detour to another bridge upriver to reach jobs, lessons and medical appointments in town. So the reopening of the bridge last Friday evening had the community of about 1,000 buzzing.

How the fight over Thunder Bay’s century-old James Street bridge points way to spanning a racial divide

Shawnia Crews said she was “super excited” to see the bridge carrying cars again, cutting her commute to a Thunder Bay college where she is studying to be a medical technician. Her little brother, who is 5, wasn’t born when the bridge closed, so he was “just in awe, ecstatic” when their mother drove him across for the first time.

But the issue of fire truck access is weighing on the community. The trucks are too big and heavy to go across the bridge, Thunder Bay’s deputy fire chief has said.

Fire trucks are too big and heavy to go across the bridge, Thunder Bay’s deputy fire chief has said.

David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

“I think we are still going to feel more isolated from the city, just because of that issue,” said Ms. Crews, 23, who was staffing the toll booth at Mount McKay, the squat, flat-topped mountain that looms over the First Nation.

Others feel the same: excited about the reopening, but annoyed and a little bewildered that after six years of waiting they got a bridge that can’t even accommodate a fire truck.

“I’m concerned if there is a fire,” said Korene Roller, 53, who stopped to buy cigarettes and gas at Bannon’s Gas Bar on the First Nation side of the bridge. “If a house starts burning, in 20 minutes it’s gone.”

Ringing up her purchase, Johnny Decorte, 40, said the community had lost six houses to fire in six years. A brand-new house burned down last year, a garage just a month ago.

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He said a community member who is a professional firefighter has been trying to set up a volunteer fire department that would help keep residents safe.

The tale of the James Street bridge goes back to Thunder Bay’s early boom years, when it was looking to become a leading North American hub. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, a forerunner of Canadian National, finished building it in 1909. Originally designed as a swing bridge that could open for shipping traffic, it bears not only rails but walkways for pedestrians and two narrow roadways for cars. Generations of Indigenous people walked or drove across it to work or shop on the city side.

The 2013 fire interrupted car traffic and put a hurdle between the First Nation and the city. It also unveiled some ugly feelings. Social-media trolls welcomed the closure, saying it would keep Indigenous people out of town.

“The bridge fire really turned into a flashpoint for racism,” said Ryerson University sociology professor Damien Lee, who grew up on the First Nation. “It brought out the kinds of divisions that are always there.”

CN promptly reopened the bridge for rail traffic after the fire, but kept it closed for cars, arguing that it wasn’t safe. Thunder Bay objected. A long legal battle followed. The city finally prevailed, obtaining a court ruling in 2018 that ordered CN to reopen the bridge to cars. Now, with repair work finished and barriers taken down, it has happened.

That, everyone agrees, is great news. Bannon’s gave away $1,000 in a raffle and advertised a bridge-reopening special of five cents off on a litre of gas.

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Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro issued a statement welcoming the reopening and acknowledging the “challenges and frustrations citizens from both communities have faced without this access point.” Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins went down to the bridge on Saturday to celebrate. He says people were honking and shouting in triumph as they passed. “Six years in the waiting. It’s a great feeling for sure,” he said.

The fire truck issue was in the back of many minds, all the same. Fire officials have said that the city’s latest trucks weigh too much for the bridge’s roadways, which have a 15,000-kilogram capacity. They plan to keep using a detour that takes them via local Highway 61.

Deputy Fire Chief Greg Hankkio told a local radio station that the detour roughly doubles their response time, to nine minutes. Though Chief Collins says he is working with CN on possible ways of getting trucks across the bridge, no solution has emerged so far.

Ms. Crews, the toll booth staffer, says that by the time fire trucks come through, “your house could burn down.” As excited as she is to see cars crossing the bridge again, it’s “very unfortunate.”

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