Hudson’s Bay Co. calls donation of Winnipeg building an act of reconciliation

The historic HBC building in Winnipeg opened its doors in 1926, and nearly 100 years later it is being transferred to Indigenous leaders in Manitoba to transform the building into a space of economic and social reconciliation. Mark Neufeld reports.

By Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

Hudson’s Bay Co., North America’s oldest company with fur trading roots entwined with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, is calling the donation of its landmark Winnipeg building to a First Nations group an act of reconciliation.

The retailer announced the gift of the nearly century-old sprawling limestone building to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization on Friday.

“We’re very proud the Hudson’s Bay Company can help be leaders in reconciliation,” Richard Baker, governor and executive chairman of the 352-year-old company, said in an interview.

“For many years, Hudson’s Bay Company and the Indigenous Peoples of Canada have co-operated together and this is a new moment of co-operation and partnership. We’re shaking hands with our old partners and building a relationship going forward.”

BACKGROUND: Former The Bay store in downtown Winnipeg to be used partly for Indigenous housing

Grand Chief Jerry Daniels called the donation a “historic and monumental” step toward reconciliation in Canada.

“The vision really is to create as much opportunity as we can,” he said. “We’re really focused on economic reconciliation.”

The powerful symbolism of having a colonial store in the hands of Indigenous Peoples will stand as a “beacon of hope,” Daniels said.

“It will be a place for Indigenous Peoples to come together and work in collaboration to put our children first.”

HBC, now a holding company with real estate, department stores and e-commerce operations, started in 1670 as a fur trading business.

It’s complex history is closely tied to colonial expansion as it established an exclusive and exploitative trading monopoly with Indigenous Peoples.

The fur trade created a reliance on European-made goods and introduced diseases that devastated Indigenous populations.

Hudson’s Bay also claimed sovereignty of much of the land, which it sold to the government of Canada after Confederation amid its increased focus on retail expansion.

The company’s Winnipeg store opened in 1926.

“The Hudson’s Bay Company has made a lot of money through dispossession in Western Canada,” said Sean Carleton, assistant professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba.

“The store downtown… is kind of a symbol of that.”

The Winnipeg building – one of the company’s “original six” iconic flagship department stores – has been in decline for many years.

It received heritage designation in 2019 but a valuation that same year found the building was worth $0 due to the significant investment needed. HBC closed the store for good in 2020.

“Offering a building worth nothing (to Indigenous People) is also somewhat fitting in terms of what is being offered back at the end of this process,” Carleton said.

He added the building does hold a lot of potential to be transformed into something that matches the needs of the community.

Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said funding has already been secured to ensure the success of the ambitious project.

The six-storey building in downtown Winnipeg will be transformed to include almost 300 affordable housing units, a child care centre, a museum, an art gallery and restaurants.

There are also plans for a health centre that will embrace both western and traditional medical practices and a rooftop garden.

The heritage building’s historic facade will be preserved, while the interior renovation will prioritize low carbon materials and reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

It will also become the future Governance House for the chiefs of the southern First Nations, which represent 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota Nations.

The extensive renovation is expected to create jobs during the construction phase and significant long-term employment once complete.

The project’s working title is Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, or “it is visible.”

—With files from Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg

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