Reconciliation or an empty gift?

WINNIPEG, Manitoba – Near the old perfume counters at the Hudson’s Bay department store in Winnipeg, Canada, a token exchange took place.

The chief of Hudson’s Bay—the oldest company in North America—accepted beaver and elk skins from Indian chiefs in exchange for the building, the company’s flagship.

The ceremony took place a year ago when the Hudson’s Bay Company, the company chartered to found the colony that became part of Canada, gifted the six-story, 55,000-square-foot building in the city center to a group of First Nations.

But what seemed like an act of reconciliation is now up for debate as the cost of transforming the building becomes clearer: Was it a real gift or an empty one?

The transfer focused attention on the evolving relationship between the Hudson Bay and the indigenous peoples of Canada, and the company’s central role in the history of a nation founded on the fur trade between and between Hudson Bay and them.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others at the ceremony hailed the deportation as an act of reconciliation between Canada and its oppressed Aboriginal people. But the details of the deal raise questions about economic justice as Canada works toward reconciliation with its indigenous peoples.

The original owners plan to convert the store, which was built in 1926, into a mixed-use building for their community that will include restaurants, a rooftop garden, and a healing center.

In 2019, appraisers said the building was worth nothing — or less, in fact, because it would cost as much as C$111 million to renovate, or $82 million. The company declined to comment on the matter.

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For generations, at least for non-Native patrons, a visit to the city center was not complete without a visit to the elaborate neoclassical Hudson’s Bay monolith comprising the most select blocks in the business district.

Relocation has been a tough business, especially for people like 27-year-old Darian McKinney, one of the original architects commissioned to transform the building. Like many native Canadians, McKinney never went to the store. “Even if you could shop in Hudson’s Bay,” he said, “you’d feel like you didn’t belong.”

“The atmosphere in downtown Winnipeg was rooted in the exclusion of Indigenous people,” said Rihanna Merasti, 27, another local architect working on the redevelopment of the building.

The building’s new owner, Southern Leaders Organization, is struggling to raise the last C$20 million of the C$130 million it says is needed to renovate the building, which sits largely empty.

In the 20th century, Hudson’s Bay evolved from a fur trader into a modern retailer, opening department stores across Canada. But nearly a century after it opened, the Winnipeg store has closed in 2020, a victim of the pandemic and online shopping.

Hudson’s Bay, owned since 2008 by US real estate tycoon Richard Baker, found itself saddled with a worthless structure – designated a landmark building in 2019 against the company’s wishes – that could not be demolished, but had to keep paying taxes on it.

Southern Chiefs then approached Hudson Bay with an offer to take control of the building and turn it into a center for indigenous living, said Jerry Daniels, the leader of the organization.

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“It’s a perfect fit,” Daniels said, “because the natives really built Hudson’s Bay.” “And that’s the story to be told about, that we really built this country.”

In recent years, Canada has had to “acknowledge that the very essence of Canada as an entity is a colonial project,” said Adele Berry, a professor and expert on colonialism at the University of Manitoba.


BBC-NEWS-SRC:, import date: 2023-06-20 21:00:07

Sacha Woodward

"Wannabe writer. Lifelong problem solver. Gamer. Incurable web guru. Professional music lover."

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