Hudson’s Bay Co. gift is a concrete step toward reconciliation

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As symbolism goes, the handover by the Hudson’s Bay Co. of its iconic Winnipeg building to an Indigenous organization as a model of economic reconciliation could fill a doctoral thesis.

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Opinion

As symbolism goes, the handover by the Hudson’s Bay Co. of its iconic Winnipeg building to an Indigenous organization as a model of economic reconciliation could fill a doctoral thesis.

It is, in some ways, a culmination of centuries’ worth of history, good and ill.

Radisson and Groseilliers. European monarchs eyeing the New World’s wealth. Royal charters. Vessels like the Eaglet, the Nonsuch carrying men called the “Company of Adventurers.”

- Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba The Hudson's Bay flagship store in downtown Winnipeg.

In what would become Canada, the adventure became one of colonization, of conflict and displacement, of pain and loss, of commerce, of prosperity for some and decline for others.

And, now, in the heart of Winnipeg – a city with the largest urban Indigenous population in Canada — a story of reconciliation and revitalization.

More tangibly, the transaction gives — quite literally — concrete expression to the often abstract matter of reconciliation, the returning of real estate.

In announcing $65 million in funding for the project, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it “an inspiring and inspired act of reclamation.”

The building is being transferred to the Southern Chiefs Organization, a group representing 34 Manitoba First Nations, and most of its space will be used to create affordable housing.

It will be transformed to include almost 300 affordable units, a museum, an art gallery and restaurants. There are also plans for a health centre that would embrace both western and traditional medical practices.

The six-storey building, which opened in 1926 and sprawled over 655,000 square feet, has been vacant since November 2020, an appraiser having pegged its value at $0 because of the massive renovations it required.

The support from various levels of government will make a “real, positive impact on First Nations people,” Trudeau said.

It was about more than just a building, he said, but about rebuilding trust, a landmark, frayed relationships.

To be sure, the emotions roused and themes evoked by a ceremony on Friday in the Manitoba capital are complicated and manifold, a virtual survey course in Canadian history.

The HBC, chartered in 1670 and Canada’s oldest company, was the vanguard of western expansion of settlers across the continent – a movement that inflicted devastation on First Nations who had occupied the land for millennia.

It became the vehicle for enacting the will of European monarchs, the wielder of absolute rule over territory that would eventually become Canada’s western provinces.

The company’s history was a long one, Trudeau said, “woven inextricably with the story of Indigenous people.”

Winnipeg would become the commercial hub of central Canada, the headquarters since 1970 of HBC head offices. The company would transform from fur traders to retailers, becoming the largest in Canada with signature landmark stores in downtowns across the country.

For decades, the vast building anchored Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, its Christmas windows a magnet for shoppers.

But, as in so many cities across the continent, it became stranded downtown, a bricks-and-mortar testament to better times, its owner puzzling over what to do with it.

Now, the prime minister said, it will be both visible and a blueprint for renewal in Canada.

It’s a project of creativity, innovation and value that’s symbolic and symbolic, Trudeau said, an “historic day of reconciliation,” a precursor of urban renewal, job creation and economic prosperity.

It’s an initiative that merits applause and imitation.

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