The Canada Games Complex was built to host the aquatic events of the 1981 Canada Summer Games including swimming, diving and waterpolo. Back in the early days of the Complex, when staff was hired to operate the facility they initially had to work out of a trailer for the final six months of facility construction. It was very exciting to be at the opening of the premiere facility of its kind in North America - the 77-metre Olympic-sized swimming pool was the largest of its kind at the time - and to welcome Canada’s top amateur athletes to compete at Thunder Bay’s newest facility.
In order to appreciate the significance and legacy of the Canada Games Complex, one must understand the Canada Games themselves. On occasion the Games are dubbed the ‘Canadian Olympics’; these alternating winter/summer events occur every two years and have been hosted by many different Canadian cities. The Canada Games were first proposed back in 1924 by the Secretary of the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada, Norton Crow. It was his intention to create a competition strictly for the amateur athletes of Canada that would encourage their potential and prepare them to compete in international Olympic competitions. The Canada Games, however, did not see the light of day until they were included in the Canadian Centennial celebrations of 1967. The reasons for the delay were the absence of federal funding for strictly amateur events and the belief that said funding would deform the intended amateur spirit of the proposed Games. This belief was changed with the poor performance of Canadian athletes in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and with a study done showing that the relative fitness of the Canadian public was at an all-time low.
In August of 1981, Thunder Bay had the distinction of hosting the 4th Summer Canada Games. Over 5,000 local volunteers worked tirelessly for four years to make the Games a success. When all the work was done and the city was ready, 15,000 spectators, 3,600 amateur Canadian athletes and 800 media persons converged on Thunder Bay during the hot summer days of August. For two weeks, Thunder Bay was the hub of Canadian sport, and the jewel of it all was the Canada Games Complex. The Complex was designed to host the swimming, diving and water polo events of the 1981 Summer Canada Games. After the 1981 Games were secured by Thunder Bay in 1977, the City organized the Canada Games Society, which was responsible for the administration and also construction, renovation and upgrading of facilities throughout the community in order to accommodate the 17 events scheduled to take place during the Games. The showcase facility was, of course, the Canada Games Complex. The City of Thunder Bay, the Federal and Provincial Governments, Wintario and community donations divided the $7.1 million cost (1981 dollars). The Complex was designed by Architects Marani, Roundthwaite and Dick and was built by Gateway Building and Supply Ltd. Construction began on May 31, 1979 and was completed in April 1981. After the Games finished in August of 1981, the facility was turned over to the City to operate.
The Canada Games Complex opened its doors to Thunder Bay and its community in the fall of 1981. The legacy of all Canada Games takes the form of four objectives or intentions, which are: to leave behind first-class facilities in the hopes of fostering future athletic growth in the host community, to develop young competitors into an international-calibre athletes, to encourage national competition among Canadian communities, and finally to promote professional disciplines such as fundraising and administration. Looking back to 1981, the objectives have certainly been met, with lasting effects for our community. The Canada Games Complex successfully made the transition from a single-event-oriented facility to a community-oriented facility that continues to serve as a world-class athletic resource for our citizens. For 25 years, local amateur athletes such as Mary DePiero and diving coach Mitch Geller have made use of the Complex’s facilities and have gone on to distinguish themselves on the national and international stage. Also, in partnership with the Thunder Bay Diving Club and the Thunderbolts Swim Club, the Canada Games Complex regularly hosts the same calibre of competitive events as seen back in 1981. So, it seems the legacy of the Canada Games remains to this day in Thunder Bay‘s premiere multi-recreational facility.
Over the years the Complex has undergone many physical changes to accommodate the needs of the Community and our patrons.
There have been many other facility changes since 1981. The above list highlights some of the major ones.
Early in its history and even before it opened its doors, the Canada Games Complex was called “the white elephant” because it was anticipated that it would be too much of a financial burden on the community to keep in operation. Many people pointed to the 1977 Summer Games facility in St. John’s, which was closed for six months after their games until the City and Province determined who was responsible for its operation. However, in our case, the Games Society and the City were very well prepared for the Complex’s transition from the “Games” to the “Community” facility it has become. The Complex has accommodated up to 450,000 visitors per year through membership, day admissions, program registrations, school and other groups, and special events such as provincial and national Dive and Swim meets. From hosting up to 450 birthday parties, to providing “Inclusion Services” for persons with disabilities, the Canada Games Complex has something for everybody, and families are and will always be at the heart of the Complex.
Thunder Bay is definitely fortunate to have a facility such as the Canada Games Complex that can be enjoyed by all. Visitors from other parts of Canada constantly remind us of “how lucky we are.” Of course, the success of the Complex is attributed to the dedicated and talented staff and volunteers who have worked here over the last 30 years.