Perfect timing, determination behind remarkable Bay deal
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When the Hudson’s Bay Co. announced rather unexpectedly in November 2020 it was closing its flagship downtown store — three months earlier than expected — the chief operating officer at the Southern Chiefs Organization took immediate notice.
Jennifer Rattray, a former television anchor who is a member of the Peepeekisis First Nation, had an enduring interest in the downtown Bay building. Prior to working at SCO, Rattray spent a decade at the University of Winnipeg as a vice-president and right-hand woman to then-president Lloyd Axworthy.
In 2012, Rattray was part of a team assembled by Axworthy, former federal cabinet minister and longtime downtown advocate, that took a long, hard look at assuming ownership of the Bay building.
In 2010, owners of the Bay had offered Axworthy rent-free use of two upper floors of the store to establish a national centre of Indigenous study. Two years later, the Bay sweetened the deal: the U of W could take it over for free.
However, even at no cost, the university quickly realized it did not have the financial capacity to take on the acquisition, redevelopment and operation of what is, at 650,000 square feet, the largest commercial building downtown.
Fast-forward nearly 10 years and, with the store closing and the future of the building more uncertain than ever, Rattray and her team at SCO had a sense that now, the political tide had turned in their favour.
The country was focused on reconciliation in the wake of a commission of inquiry into both the residential schools system and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. As well, provincial and federal governments were looking for viable projects to promote affordable housing on a larger scale.
At the same time, HBC had admitted that based on the costs of redeveloping it for some other purpose, the building was valued at $0.
“It was really the right opportunity at the right time,” Rattray said on Friday, moments after a deeply moving ceremony at the Bay downtown to mark the launch of the redevelopment of the building. “A lot of people had tried for a lot of years to make this work. Suddenly, we saw our chance.”
”A lot of people had tried for a lot of years to make this work. Suddenly, we saw our chance.”–Jennifer Rattray
What unfolded after the SCO decided to go all in on the Bay building is nothing short of remarkable.
The SCO team began to take shape. Axworthy had maintained a very positive relationship with Richard Baker, the executive chairman of Hudson’s Bay Co. who was involved in offering the building to the U of W in 2012. Former Assembly of First Nations grand chief Phil Fontaine joined Axworthy as senior consultants to the project.
Starting in early 2021, the SCO was able to secure a consensus from the chiefs of its 34 First Nations, assemble a team of technical experts, estimate project costs, secure private financing for its part of the cost and put together a business plan and architectural renderings that would ultimately win over politicians from all three levels of government.
“When they first came to us, it was like ‘wow,’” said Liberal MP Jim Carr. “They had the whole thing there ready to go. It came together so quickly, but it was all there.”
The details released on Friday show a $65-million contribution from Ottawa, directed at the creation of nearly 300 housing units. Manitoba is also a contributor, with a pledge for up to $35 million to support housing and heritage preservation. The City of Winnipeg is expected to provide tax relief, although the details haven’t been worked out. The remainder of the project cost, $30 million, is expected to be cobbled together from other program grants and loans, some connected to the cultural content of the development.
A project of this cost and complexity that involves First Nations, all three levels of government and the private sector typically takes years to bring to fruition, not months.
Given that type of gestation, projects such as this typically lurch from “the promising,” to “the doomed,” and back again. Political leaders come and go, governments are unseated, and not all pledges are honoured by those who take over.
The project is also remarkable because it represents an unprecedented gesture of positive karmic justice. A building established by HBC, the tip of the colonial spear wielded by the British, being transferred into the hands of a First Nations organization, at an Indigenous ceremony. It will take time to establish the viability of this project, but this is certainly a new and promising take on true reconciliation.
On that note, it’s important to remember the hill the SCO must climb to realize it’s dream is still very steep.
The complete project costs have not yet been entirely accounted for and the broad array of uses of this new and redeveloped building — affordable housing, assisted living for elders, child care, wellness, arts and culture and Indigenous-run commercial interests — is breathtaking to the point of being possibly unrealistic.
Still, this was the day when Indigenous people assumed ownership of an iconic building from a bygone era of colonial relations.
Everyone involved can be proud of that accomplishment.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Friday, April 22, 2022 7:58 PM CDT: Adds Peepeekisis First Nation to Rattray reference
Updated on Friday, April 22, 2022 10:50 PM CDT: Fixes typo in photo caption