Reconciliation in the air as HBC hands Bay over to Manitoba First Nations group Century-old department store to be transformed into hub of Indigenous life
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North America’s oldest company, which helped colonize Canada and subjugate Indigenous peoples, handed over one of its flagship stores to Manitoba First Nations Friday in a ceremony steeped in history, symbolism and references to reconciliation.
An exchange of gifts and — perhaps most importantly — the reclaiming of rent in beaver pelts and elk hides marked the Hudson’s Bay Co.’s transfer of its downtown store to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization.
“Together, with the Hudson’s Bay Company, we’re leading change and reconciliation,” SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels told a crowd of about 150 people attending the ceremony on the former store’s main floor, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Heather Stefanson and Mayor Brian Bowman.
“This marks the beginning of a new future for First Nations peoples and for all Canadians,” Daniels said.
The massive building at Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard will become Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn — “It is Visible” — an ambitious multi-use facility. Plans include 300 affordable-housing units, assisted living for elders, a museum, a daycare where children learn Indigenous languages, a health and healing centre offering both western and traditional medicine, a rooftop garden and the rebirth of Winnipeg’s beloved Paddlewheel restaurant.
The federal government has committed $65 million to the project. The province will advance $10 million for the affordable-housing component and $25 million for preserving the historic building with the fund announced for that purpose in last year’s budget. And the city is in discussions with SCO about its contribution.
“Today’s announcement is reconciliation in action,” Trudeau told the gathering. “For the Southern Chiefs’ Organization to become the new stewards of the Hudson’s Bay building in downtown Winnipeg is an inspiring and inspired act of reclamation.
“This marks the beginning of a new future for First Nations peoples and for all Canadians.”
– SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels
“It’s not just about a building, it’s about rebuilding trust, rebuilding landmarks and rebuilding relationships. This moment today is a tangible example of the kinds of steps that are being made across the country between Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners.”
On May, 2 1670 a proclamation by King Charles II granted the Hudson’s Bay Co. exclusive trading monopoly of lands in the traditional territories of First Nations people, forever changing the 34 Anishnaabe and Dakota nations that make up the SCO, Daniels explained.
“The British Crown required the payment of rent in the form of two elk hides and two beaver pelts when they or their heirs and successors visited the territory now known as Canada,” he said.
“(They) represent the turning point of our collective history.”
HBC governor Richard Baker acknowledged the company’s definitive role in the colonization of Canada, the results of which produced “entrenched racism across systems and institutions, inter-generational trauma and centuries of inequality.”
“These things cannot be remedied by a single action, a single promise or a single speech,” Baker said after exchanging the hides and pelts with Daniels. “Meaningful reconciliation is a long and difficult path.”
He said the company plans to stay on that path with SCO as it turns the building into a place to live, grow, heal and meet.
“This will be a legacy-defining project created by community for community,” he said.
Bay redevelopment ‘exciting shift’
Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgogn — “it is visible” — is living up to its name by drawing applause from groups set on putting life back into downtown.
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization plans to transform the Hudson’s Bay Co. building at Portage and Memorial into a place to live, grow, heal and govern.
It’s an “exciting shift,” said Kate Fenske, CEO of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.
“It’s about people, about community and it’s an important step towards reconciliation and building a more inclusive downtown that all Manitobans can be proud of,” Fenske stated.
Daniels said he hopes construction will begin in a couple of months and that it will take three years to transform the massive, century-old six-storey structure.
Imagining new life in the building that has been boarded up for the past 17 months gave Stefanson “goosebumps,” she said after the ceremony.
“I think this is going to bring back that vibrancy to the downtown area of Winnipeg,” she said. “It’s going to be a place for people to gather. It’s just going to be so exciting for our city and the province.”
Bowman said the talks with SCO have focused on tax increment financing and streetscaping.
“The value of seeing this kind of investment in our community is significant,” he told reporters. “I’m hoping what it will do, for some in our community, is to help everyone see what I see — the strength, resilience and wisdom we have from Indigenous peoples in Canada.”
Bowman said the elegantly decorated ceremony was entirely Indigenous led, something that wouldn’t have occurred 300 years ago or even a decade ago.
The historic significance wasn’t lost on 14-year-old Dakota Plains First Nation resident Sophia Smoke.
“This is so much bigger than any of us will ever understand,” the oral historian told the group.
“We will only understand when it is written in the history books…. We are rewriting our history. Today our grandparents’ prayers have been answered. This is only the beginning of our journey towards reconciliation.”
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Updated on Friday, April 22, 2022 7:44 PM CDT: Add apostrophe to Southern Chiefs' Organization.
Updated on Saturday, April 23, 2022 4:00 PM CDT: Fixes typo