Plywood was removed from Portage Avenue-facing windows on the shuttered downtown Bay building Thursday to reveal a pair of murals made by Indigenous artists Peatr Thomas and Glenn Gear.
Since the grand building closed Nov. 30, its future has been uncertain. Its windows, which once held intricate seasonal displays, were boarded up a short time later, sparking concern about its dreary appearance. There were impassioned calls for it to be used as affordable housing, a marketplace or cultural centre as a form of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
Thomas, an Inninew (Cree) artist, has created a mural of a giant black turtle emerging from the land, beneath a glowing red sky. It fills several windows alongside Gear's mural of ghost dogs.
He said the display is a chance to make a statement.
"When it comes to understanding the history of the Hudson’s Bay Co. and the fur-trade era, there’s a bit of animosity among a lot of Indigenous peoples, myself included," said Thomas. "The building is now vacant, but there’s an opportunity to reclaim this place.
"Even if it’s just a window, it’s a start."
Kallie Pirrie, an artist who often sets up shop in front of the building, says the boarded-up windows are an eyesore. "They were boring. Multiple people vandalized the boards because they were tired of looking at them," she said Thursday.
Everyone was tired of looking at them, said Dayna Spiring, CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg and the chair woman of the Bay downtown advisory committee, which has the task of figuring out the building’s future.
"When those boards went up, there was a lot of concern," she said. Though the boards were put up to protect the building, "it was not a good look for Winnipeg, and we had to do better as a community."
Through consultation with Hudson’s Bay, Spiring said it was decided to use the windows to promote Indigenous art and showcase Qaumajuq, the new Inuit art centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery across the street; works by Thomas and Gear are featured there.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman announced Thursday the city would contribute $10,000 toward the public installations, while the provincial and federal governments contributed $20,000 and $30,000, respectively.
"We wanted to make sure that iconic building was looking better than it has been," Spiring said. "Ideally, it would have been in time for the (Jets to play in) the Stanley Cup Finals, but it wasn’t meant to be."
Gladys Thomson was stopped in her tracks by the murals while walking down Portage Thursday. The 71-year-old downtown resident remembers going to see the window displays with her family.
"To see it boarded up was heartbreaking. In a way, it was the end of a legacy," she said. "To see it today, a bright display of local art — the beautiful colours, the inspiring words, it’s wonderful."
Spiring said future plans include the possibility of more artwork on windows that face Memorial Boulevard. The future of the building, she said, is an open discussion, and the committee will make recommendations in the coming months.
Indigenous artist Jimmy McKenzie was sewing moosehide moccasins in front of the Bay Thursday afternoon, and said it was fitting that Indigenous art filled the windows. "That’s exactly what we need here," he said. "The natives are the ones who started the Hudson’s Bay Co. They’re the ones who gave them all the furs in 1670."
McKenzie said displaying more Indigenous art in public could change the city, give artists an outlet to share their stories and inspire Indigenous artists to make more art. Of the building itself, McKenzie hopes its future will follow the windows’ lead.
"I’d like to see this whole place full of native people, doing native art," said McKenzie, 61, whose father was a residential school survivor in British Columbia. "If they gave the whole building to native people to make and sell native art, that would be awesome. For now, they stand outside, like I do here."
Thomas came by Thursday afternoon to take a second look at the mural, which he created digitally. Its title is "Aski Pimachi Iwew", which means "Earth Giving Us Survival Ways." it was named by his mother, a residential school survivor.
The story of the mural is based loosely on a prophecy that with a red sky comes a time of great change as Mother Earth cleanses herself and people awake to truth and the sacred teachings. "This mural, to me, is what I hope is the aftermath of that change," he said. "A new Turtle Island built on truth."
Affixed to the Bay building, the mural’s theme of renewal and returning the land takes on additional meaning. Like McKenzie, Thomas hopes its future includes space for creative work, performing arts, a market for Indigenous artists, and other positive endeavours for the community.
"A lot of the people who stopped to look at the mural were Indigenous people, and that felt really good," Thomas said. "I can’t help but wonder what they’re thinking or feeling, but I imagine and hope it’s something positive and something that they can feel proud of and represented (by) as Indigenous people."
After Thomas skateboarded away, two Indigenous teenagers walked by the mural, stopped, and stared for a few seconds.
"That looks much better," one said.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.