Historic landmark is a symbol of change

HBC Winnipeg. Photo by Krazytea, Wikimedia Commons.

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) transferred ownership of its historic flagship store in Winnipeg to the Southern Chiefs Organization after the iconic building was shut down in November of 2020. This transfer of a colonial store into the hands of Indigenous peoples is symbolic.

The area now known as Winnipeg has been a traditional Indigenous gathering place for thousands of years for Indigenous Nations like the Anishinaabe, Dakota, Cree, and many others. As the fur trade expanded in North America, this area became an important hub for fur trade activity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) also has a long-standing history in the Winnipeg area, dating back to the eighteenth century with the emergence of the fur trade as a major commercial enterprise in North America. The HBC established Upper Fort Garry at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in what is now downtown Winnipeg in 1822. Indigenous people were central to the success of the fur trade and the HBC, trapping during the fall and winter and travelling to trading posts in the summer months to barter furs for goods such as tools, guns, and textiles. Indigenous peoples also guided traders, worked at forts and posts, and provided food to sustain company workers. In other words, Indigenous Nations were the backbone of the fur trade economy.

The fur trade dramatically changed how Indigenous Nations lived. Perhaps most notable is the role the company played in the colonization of the west; first, with the influx of European settlement, and then with the transfer of Rupert’s Land (which included the whole of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, southern Alberta, southern Nunavut, and northern parts of Ontario and Quebec) to the Crown in 1869, making it part of the new Dominion of Canada two years after Confederation. The transfer of this land was to make way for settler colonialism in western Canada; however, this was done without consulting Indigenous nations or considering their sovereignty.

The HBC store in Winnipeg is significant for what it represents to Canada’s colonial history. The retail store first opened in 1881 at the corner of Main Street and York Avenue. The front section of the store was used for retail business with the back, and upper floors, used for the storage of furs and general merchandise. This was a time where the local economy relied heavily on the fur trade and the local Métis population played a significant role in facilitating this business by acting as guides or voyageurs, as well as providing pemmican to sustain HBC employees.

By the 1900s, Winnipeg’s shopping district relocated to Portage Avenue. The HBC shifted their retail strategy to the development of large modern department stores to provide services to the expanding settler populations of the west. A brand-new store in a brand-new location was planned at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard. On November 18, 1926, the new store opened for business on the main, second, and third floors, while work continued the upper floors. Massive refrigeration rooms held foodstuffs, both for direct sale to the public and the store’s restaurant and cafeteria operations. More refrigeration was found in the state-of-the-art cold storage vault for furs, housed on the sixth floor. The largest fur storage vault in western Canada, it could store 12,000 garments. This new construction not only signified the Company’s departure from its fur-trading roots and its establishment as a national commercial retailer, but also reflected the economic optimism in Canada prior to the First World War—at least for the non-Indigenous populations.

For Indigenous communities, the movement from the 1880s to the early twentieth century brought a time of increasing controls and limits on their economic, social, cultural, and political lives. The optimism reflected by the new Hudson Bay building was not felt in Indigenous communities, where the pass and permit system, residential schools, bans on ceremonies and gatherings, and laws against hiring legal counsel were the reality.

Nearly 100 years after the store’s opening, the transfer to the Southern Chiefs signifies a turning point for the place of Indigenous Nations in Canada’s history. “Today can be another step forward to a brighter future, one that reflects what our ancestors dreamed of,” stated Grand Chief Jerry Daniels. “This project is an act of reconciliation and is our vision to revitalize the heart of Winnipeg’s downtown, for the benefit of all, in line with our traditional, holistic approach to sustainable economic development.”

The newly acquired store will be re-vamped to counter the colonial controls of the past centuries. It will provide safe and affordable housing, a place to call home. The name of this project is ‘Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn,’ which means “it is visible” in Anishinaabemowin. It is anticipated to provide 289 housing units for members of southern First Nations, two restaurants, a public atrium, a rooftop garden, and an art gallery.

On Friday, Apr. 22, 2022, the Hudson’s Bay Company officially announced the gifting of its former flagship downtown Bay store to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO), which represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota Nations in southern Manitoba. A symbolic transfer ceremony was held where SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels handed over two beaver pelts and two elk hides to Richard Baker, the governor and executive chairman of the Hudson’s Bay Co. Baker then presented Daniels with a gold coin replica of the original trade currency between the Hudson Bay Co. and First Nations. The SCO plans to spend $130 million to redevelop the six-story building on Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue.

“As we considered the future for the Winnipeg building, it was important to ensure a sustainable plan for the site that also had meaningful purpose for the City of Winnipeg. HBC’s Truth and Reconciliation journey requires actions that demonstrate our commitment to moving forward together with Indigenous communities. We believe SCO is the right steward for this location and can create a new community landmark that will help advance reconciliation,” said Richard Baker, governor and executive chairman at Hudson’s Bay Company.

With files from