Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/2/2016 (550 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In winter months, I like to remove my tuque when I walk the emaciated corridors of the downtown Hudson’s Bay Co. store. Even if I’m only briskly cutting across the ground floor to catch a bus after work, the old place demands a certain bit of decorum. Maybe this is an antiquated gesture, but the Bay is an antiquated department store.
It takes a good deal of imagination in 2016 to picture the place at its halcyon mid-century days, when Portage Avenue was the Fifth Avenue of the prairies and the Bay was its Saks. Equally imaginative and perhaps more disappointing is to picture it as the kind of busy, contemporary department store still found in many North American downtowns.
But the reality is the old store has never faced a more uncertain future than it does today, even as it limps along on with less and less floor space. "Death-row retail," is how someone recently described the feeling of the place.
The Bay’s closure would effectively mark the end of brand-name retail on Portage Avenue and serve as an uncomfortable reminder of the long-term struggle of Winnipeg’s outsized downtown to retain wealth.
For a city that views Portage Avenue with guilty sentimentality, the Bay seems too big to fail. But the 675,000-square-foot building is also too big to easily adapt to the economic realities of the neighbourhoods surrounding it.
Whatever happens, the great building itself should remain standing. While the facade’s latter-day neoclassicism isn’t much to write home about, the building is perhaps the greatest symbol of Portage Avenue’s time as a colourful and elegant shopping destination.
The Bay downtown is also a symbol of an older Red River Settlement. For much of the 19th century, this was a multilingual society with rudimentary systems of capitalism and governance based on co-operation and trade between Europeans, indigenous people and the Métis people who emerged from it.
Perhaps no other building in Winnipeg represents both eras so entirely.
The Bay is not without its critics. Now and again, HBC is portrayed as a problematic vestige of explicit and oppressive colonization. For these critics, it doesn’t help that HBC recently became an American-owned corporation, and its iconic merchandise has become articles of both casual nationalism and hipster affectation replete with a branding change to call its stores Hudson’s Bay (while for most of us in Canada, it remains the Bay).
More accurately, the HBC was the de facto ruler over a vast land that was far too distant and dispersed to be properly colonized. At the Red River Settlement, the end of this rule was the end of a uniquely diverse and co-operative settler society. It was the HBC’s surrender of the Northwest to the Canadian government in 1869 that brought surveying parties to the Red River Settlement and caused Louis Riel to make the desperate move to establish a provisional government.
With the new city of Winnipeg growing and the fur-trade economy shrinking, HBC went into the department store business. In 1881, the year the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in Winnipeg, HBC opened a store at Main and York.
Even as a city grew up around it, HBC carried on with some fur trading at its Main Street store and, in the early 20th century, it was known as one of the few places inside city limits where indigenous people could still be seen.
Adapting yet again, the Bay eventually moved to Portage Avenue in 1926, though by this time the fur-trade era lived on only in the giant murals painted above the store’s elevator doors.
Like its oldest commercial tenant, the history of Winnipeg is neither entirely triumphant nor entirely damnable. Somewhere in the middle is where the city can be confronted by and try to understand what has shaped it.
Winnipeg is a complex and cosmopolitan city of new peoples and aspirations. For newcomers, Winnipeg remains a place where one can hope to live a safer, freer, better life. It also remains an indigenous place; a place established through meaningful partnership and trade between nations.
Gathering and settlement will continue in what is now downtown Winnipeg, even if downtown department stores follow the fur trade into history. The great old building at Portage and Memorial and all it represents will continue to loom large over it.
Robert Galston is a master’s candidate in the city planning department at the University of Manitoba.