Thunder Bay, You Say?

June 2016

Japan’s Iron Lady Trades Big Steel for Heart and Soul

That was the slogan from an ad campaign in the 1970s and it’s persisted in one form or another to the present day. To be honest, I always thought it a little cheesy and a lot untrue. We were dour, I reckoned – made hard by long winters, rough terrain and mosquitoes.

Imagine my surprise when the ‘Iron Lady’ from Japan says otherwise.

I met Hiroko Bekki-Moller for coffee last month as she is one of the many smart, dynamic people who have traveled the world only to make Thunder Bay their home. I was fascinated by her story - the first woman in Toyota’s R&D department to be sent out of Japan ends up bringing the Peace Bell Ceremony to Thunder Bay. It’s a trek studded with heart, soul and more than a little bit of steel.

“The steel wasn’t just for the cars,” says Bekki-Moller. “But for Caterpillar equipment, Mack trucks and Tomcats as well. We went all over Europe and the U.S. but soon, we realized that aluminum was much more efficient. There was a metal revolution in the heavy machine industry and because of that, my job changed.”
Her career led her back to Asia during the APEC years to capitalize on the burgeoning organic food movement.

There she spearheaded the creation of sustainable asparagus farming in Thailand for Japanese markets. It was a challenging process to blend the efficient, fast-paced agricultural industry with the simpler and more holistic way of farming in Thailand. It was a tremendous success however, and because of it, Bekki-Moller found herself focusing more on the human element of R&D. A brief stint as a medical supplies liaison in South Korea fanned her humanitarian heart and she decided to explore a country known for its social conscience and global initiatives. Canada.

Never one to sit still, Bekki-Moller became the accounting manager for a Toronto-based tourism company. She also attended the Liaison Program at the University of Toronto, receiving a Foreign Language Teaching Certificate. It was there that she met her husband, and after a few years, moved to Thunder Bay to further her husband’s education.

Bekki-Moller began teaching Japanese at the College, and while it was engaging, still her active mind and restless spirit could not settle.

“It was a very dark time for me,” she says. “I had nothing to do. I had a husband and a child but nothing for me. I am a busy person. I must be doing something.”
After much encouragement from her husband, she applied at a local grocery store and was hired immediately in the meat/dairy department. It was certainly not the career move she had anticipated, but for Bekki-Moller, it was the beginning of brighter days.

“I’m a metal girl,” she laughs. “Not meat or dairy! They had to teach me everything! They gave me skills; they gave me ideas. At first I was mad because I knew nothing but they taught me everything! They were beautiful!”

Her natural confidence returned and soon she was in her son’s classroom introducing Japanese culture to the students. From origami cranes to the devastating story of Hiroshima, it was clear she was a sensitive, creative and gifted teacher. She quickly became involved in community groups like Our Kids Count, the Rotary Club and the West Thunder Community Centre. But her life changed drastically in 2010, when she pitched the idea of a summer Peace Bell Ceremony to the Sister Cities Advisory Council. The ceremony was such a success that Bekki-Moller was asked to join the council and she has been a major contributor ever since.

“This ceremony grows bigger every year with wonderful community involvement,” she says. “Every 4 years, we welcome people from Gifu City for the Peace Bell Ceremony. They will be here this July along with the Japanese Rotary Clubs to exchange banners and bells. The Fort William First Nation is involved too – they are amazing, beautiful people and I’m happy they share themselves with us. I also coordinate with the Sweet Adelines Sounds of Superior Chorus and high school choirs. Singing is about harmony, just like peace.”

With a new position at Maltese Grocery, Bekki-Moller became intrigued with the challenges of finding healthy food in an isolated northern town. After her experiences in Thailand, she turned her R&D eye to the state of organic farming in Thunder Bay.

“Just like in the asparagus in Thailand,” she says. “People are starting to look for local, natural foods. They don’t want industrial or chemical additives. I’d like to do something that involves the community, maybe host a symposium on the local food industry. Make it an event where we would have speakers, discuss allergies and diabetes, listen to topics about organic methods, sustainable farming for northern centres, importing and exporting to other markets, and more. I’ve been talking to the city about it and it’s definitely something to consider. Thunder Bay is becoming a hub for good food.”

Spoken like a true ‘Research and Developer!’

“You need a high motivation in R&D,” says Bekki-Moller. “You straighten up ideas, find one direction in the chaos, narrow down the possibilities and focus what do you want to do. This Organic Food Symposium is a dream of mine and with my skills, I know how to make dreams come true. That’s what I do.”

It’s clear that Hiroko Bekki-Moller has found her niche here in Thunder Bay and I am always curious as to what makes well-travelled people stay here. What has allowed her to thrive in Thunder Bay instead of Tokyo or New York or Toronto?

“Why do I stay?” Her eyes gleam as she smiles. “In Thunder Bay, everyone communicates. Everyone has a story. At Maltese’s, people talk to me. I’m a hearer of their stories. I love to hear what people need and see how I can help them. I always try to help.”

Bekki-Moller is excited at how the city of her choice is developing.

“Change itself is not always easy but for our city, we are developing academically and economically. It’s a great environment for education. At my son’s school, the parents and teachers - these people are gorgeous. Their spirits are gorgeous. There is history and geography and community and opportunity. Yes, there are dark, cold days – super cold days, but if I move to another city, will I have this interesting life?”

While she’s still an ‘Iron Lady’, it seems the soul of our city has won her over. “I find a balance here,” says the former Toyota executive. “Good food, comfortable clothes, nice cars. These are positives for a happy human life.

Everyone has a fair chance here, even if you live in steel-toed boots like me!” Hmm. Perhaps we do have a Giant Heart after all.

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

Visit her website at

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