In Winnipeg, a donated building becomes a force for reconciliation

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Hudson’s Bay Co.'s flagship store, down the street from the Manitoba Legislative Building, now sits empty, but has been turned over to First Nations communities in a step toward Reconciliation.
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The Hudson’s Bay Co.’s hulking, 650,000-plus-square-foot building in downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba, looms large in historical relevance. Though shuttered since 2020, it is a symbol of a company that began in 1670 as a fur trading enterprise and became one of the forces that cleared the way for modern Canada – often at the expense of its Indigenous peoples.

This spring, the Hudson’s Bay Co. transferred the building to the First Nations of Winnipeg. The Indigenous leaders plan to turn it into a multifaceted facility centered around low-income housing for the urban Indigenous community, as well as restaurants, pop-up stores, and space for artists.

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The Hudson’s Bay Co. was a key colonial power – and disrupter of Indigenous lives – in Canada. Now, First Nations plan to turn its landmark Winnipeg store into a force for renewal.

At a time when Canada says that Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is a driving goal at the highest levels of government, the return of a colonial icon to the hands of the Indigenous leadership is seen as a tangible sign of renewal.

“It was a long time coming, but was done in a very cooperative way, and to have this initiated by a First Nations group ... is an incredible statement of how history now can be restored or returned,” says Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian foreign minister. “This project [shows Native people] are entrepreneurs, they are activists doing important things, and they can manage a big project.”

After the Hudson’s Bay Co. department store shuttered its hulking, 650,000-square-foot building in downtown Winnipeg in 2020, Peatr Thomas was asked to replicate one of his murals in the empty windows. The Inninew and Anishinaabe artist at first hesitated. If any entity casts a colonial shadow in Canada, it is the Hudson’s Bay Co.

Established in 1670 by the king of England, the HBC existed for centuries as a fur trading enterprise that upended the lives of First Nations as it aggressively expanded into what would later become Canada. Mr. Thomas didn’t want to be affiliated with it.

Yet given the flagship store’s physical prominence and historical relevance, Mr. Thomas also saw an opportunity. The project could be a way to share his vision of a “new future,” he says, “built on truth.”

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

The Hudson’s Bay Co. was a key colonial power – and disrupter of Indigenous lives – in Canada. Now, First Nations plan to turn its landmark Winnipeg store into a force for renewal.

Today his vibrant mural, “Aski Pimachi Iwew,” reflects the story of the Earth’s renewal. Animals painted in black, on a red background representing dawn, depict the seven ancestor teachings of “Turtle Island,” which is what many Indigenous people call North America: love, wisdom, respect, courage, honesty, humility, and truth.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Peatr Thomas, an Inninew and Anishnaabe artist, muralist, and educator, poses in front of his commissioned mural in the cafe in Qaumajuq, the new Inuit art center at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, on May 12, 2022. The mural tells the story of the earth’s renewal.

The mural is accompanied by text written by his mother, a survivor of the country’s onetime residential school system for Indigenous peoples:

A new sunrise with the new moon.
After a time of change and awakening.
Turtle Island is new once again, built on truth in the sacred seven ancestor teachings.
Ancient knowledge once lost, is taught to us again by Mother Earth in all that she offers.

His work would be a taste of what’s to come in downtown Winnipeg. Since April, colorful flags and banners have enlivened the building’s drab neoclassical facade, installed by the Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO), which represents 34 First Nations groups in southern Manitoba.

This spring HBC, now a holding company that manages investments and owns businesses, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, transferred the building to the SCO. The Indigenous leaders plan to turn it into a multifaceted facility centered around low-income housing for the urban Indigenous community, as well as restaurants, pop-up stores, and space for artists. It will also become the new seat of SCO governance.

At a time when Canada says that Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is an overarching goal at the highest levels of government, the transfer of a colonial icon to Indigenous leaders resonates with symbolism – and is seen as a tangible sign of renewal. The project’s working title in Anishinaabemowin is Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, or “It is visible.”

“I think it was important for us to let it be known that this is the change that’s coming,” says Jerry Daniels, the grand chief of the SCO, whose offices are currently based on the industrial outskirts of Winnipeg near the airport. “This is what Reconciliation is. ... It’s a great example of what’s possible.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels gives an interview in the Southern Chiefs' Organization office on May 10, 2022, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The Hudson’s Bay Co. has turned over its flagship store to the SCO in a step toward economic Reconciliation.

Indeed, some think the new project could become a model for other Canadian cities and landmarks as the country seeks to overcome the oppressive and ongoing effects of colonization.

“This is an act of restoration,” says Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian foreign minister and former president of the University of Winnipeg, who is an adviser on the project. “It was a long time coming, but was done in a very cooperative way, and to have this initiated by a First Nations group, by the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, is an incredible statement of how history now can be restored or returned.”

HBC is Canada’s oldest company. It was chartered in 1670 by King Charles II, after two fur traders convinced him that a base on the shores of the Hudson Bay would provide direct access to the beaver pelts so popular in Europe at the time.

HBC would come to rule over trapping grounds that encompass a third of Canada today. As it expanded, the enterprise would drive settlement across the continent, acting as a de facto government and disrupting communities that had been self-sustaining with their own sophisticated trade networks and diplomatic ties. In an era of huge, politically influential corporations, such as the English East India Co. and Dutch East India Co., the colonialists didn’t question the moral authority of HBC to do so.

So when the building at Portage Avenue was transferred to Indigenous leaders in April, 352 years later, it was so rich in iconography that the event drew leaders from all levels of government, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who called the gesture an act of “reclamation.”

In an elaborate ceremony, Grand Chief Daniels, wearing a beaded headdress, transferred two beaver pelts and two elk hides, the traditional “rent” under the original charter, to the governor of HBC, New York business executive Richard Baker.

Sophia Smoke, a youth delegate for the SCO, was invited as an oral historian. She’s an eloquent 14-year-old from Dakota Plains Wahpeton First Nation in Manitoba. Her ceremonial role was a nod to an Indigenous way of history.

She addressed the crowd, including the prime minister sitting just a few feet in front of her, in the Dakota language, before continuing in English. “Today there is no mistaking, we are changing the course of history for good,” she told the crowd.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Sophia Smoke, who is a member of Dakota Plains Wahpeton First Nation, chats in her home on May 13, 2022, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. She was the Southern Chiefs' Organization’s youth delegate when the Hudson’s Bay Co. handed over its flagship building in Winnipeg to Indigenous people.

Sophia knows more about her Indigenous roots than most. Her father is the hereditary chief of their First Nation. She is a jingle dress dancer, an Indigenous practice she has been learning from her grandmother since age 3. While her peers spend their summers at camp, she travels with her family on the “powwow” trail, dancing at events across western Canada. Her Friday nights are occupied taking Dakota language lessons from her grandmother.

A day earlier, away from the spotlight of the media, she took part in sacred water and pipe ceremonies connected to the HBC transfer. While the pipe tradition is usually used by the Dakota people to make covenants with different tribes, on this day it symbolized a broader bridge.

“It was uniting more than just the Indigenous people in that moment, and it was uniting more than just the Indigenous and non-Indigenous. It was uniting all of us,” says Sophia in an interview a few weeks later, in her family’s cozy living room in suburban Portage la Prairie, an hour west of Winnipeg. It was “awesome.”

Her mother, Joan Smoke, a principal at the school on their reserve, sits on a couch opposite Sophia after serving herbal tea. “To me, it was a really honest interaction,” says Ms. Smoke. “When I teach history, oftentimes I’m not teaching of honest interaction. It is one-sided. It felt different to do ceremony with the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Co. in a way that I think we understood.”

And that felt transformative to her. “A long time ago when agreements were made, everything from treaties to the ceding of different parcels of land, it was done in the language of the colonizers, and the spirit and the intent wasn’t understood,” adds Ms. Smoke. “Being present at [the HBC] ceremonies, I felt like the spirit and the intent of what we were doing was understood by both parties.”

At the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, Winnipeg was central to HBC operations, and that had a profound effect on the province’s course of history. The fur trade gave rise to the Métis Nation – the sons and daughters of Europeans and Indigenous women whose marriages were crucial to the success of the trade. HBC spurred the settlement of the Red River Colony that would later become Winnipeg. Always a crossroads, Winnipeg transformed into a major transportation and grain hub at the geographic heart of Canada.

Today, Winnipeg is home to the largest urban Indigenous population in Canada, totaling more than 92,000, in a city of 750,000 people. It has led to a vibrant Indigenous social and cultural scene that is increasingly visible throughout the urban area. But the economic reality of Indigenous peoples, dispossessed from their lands, also comes into stark view here.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An Indigenous mural fills the front of a building in the North End of Winnipeg, Manitoba, on May 11, 2022.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A man walks past homes in the North End of Winnipeg, Manitoba, on May 11, 2022. The Indigenous community numbers more than 90,000 in the city. Many live in this low-income neighborhood where drugs and gangs are prevalent.

According to the latest census figures, 31% of Indigenous people in Winnipeg live below the low-income threshold, compared with 13% of the non-Indigenous population. Homelessness is a major problem for the city, and 66% of those in emergency shelters, transitional housing, and safe spaces identify as Indigenous. Child poverty in Manitoba is the highest of any province.

The SCO project is intended to help correct these imbalances. The Manitoba government is providing $35 million to help redevelop the HBC site; the federal government has promised another $65 million. A centerpiece of the project is a plan for 300 housing units for low-income residents.

Mr. Daniels, from Long Plain First Nation, says he experienced many problems growing up under the child welfare system. He says providing stable housing will have a ripple effect on the community that’s suffered poverty and intergenerational trauma, especially from the network of boarding schools that the country once set up for Indigenous peoples.

“Families are built on the stability of their grandparents and their great-grandparents, who were able to provide the knowledge and the love and support to engage in different areas,” he says. “We didn’t have that opportunity. We didn’t have that luxury. Ours was filled with abuse. It was filled with addictions. It was filled with exclusion and racism.”

That shows up today in the huge gaps in health care, education, labor participation, and housing. “We want to acknowledge that and try to create change as quick as we can,” he says. They hope to break ground on the housing project in mid-August.

Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn is meant to be a vibrant hub, with two restaurants and community space. It will showcase Indigenous art and culture. It will also include a museum that tells the role that Indigenous people played in the founding of HBC, from their perspective.

The building reinforces a transformation already underway in Winnipeg. Qaumajuq, billed as the largest Inuit art center in the world, opened last year. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights dedicates a significant portion of its permanent display to the truth about Canada’s violent assimilationist policies. Indigenous murals, sculpture, and gardens color the cityscape.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Exhibits at Qaumajuq, the new Inuit art center at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, on May 12, 2022, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The center is billed as home to the largest public collections of contemporary Inuit art in the world.

Now the SCO project will help revitalize a part of the city that has been neglected, says Amelia Fay, curator of the HBC collection at the Manitoba Museum. As downtown retail declined over the decades, the HBC lost its vitality, too. But the structure is so big – it was the largest reinforced concrete building in Canada when it was constructed in 1926 – that it left a vacuum in the heart of the city. “HBC held on to their retail involvement there probably far longer than they should have, purely based on the connection to that building,” Ms. Fay says.

Yet the initiative could prove restorative beyond the urban core of Winnipeg. It could change false perceptions, too. “This project dispels the idea of Native people being dependent on welfare and all those kinds of stereotypes,” says Mr. Axworthy, the former Canadian foreign minister. “No, they are entrepreneurs, they are activists doing important things, and they can manage a big project.”

Stephen Bown, author of the book “The Company,” which tells the story of the first 200 years of HBC, says the Winnipeg project in some ways takes history full circle. “The amount of Indigenous involvement in that business often goes unrecognized,” he says.

While run from London, HBC on the ground depended on the knowledge, savvy, and goodwill of the Indigenous inhabitants. “That began right from the very, very beginning. And those cultural links are what enabled the company to thrive and survive,” he says. “The company was essentially almost a subbranch of Indigenous cultures. The symbolic significance could be that the company is returning maybe in one sense to its roots as an Indigenous-run thing.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A display of goods sold by the Hudson’s Bay Co. is on exhibit at the Manitoba Museum, on May 15, 2022, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Credit and barter trade involved advancing credit to trappers in the fall for winter supplies, with debts being paid in furs the following spring.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site in St. Andrews, Manitoba. Lower Fort Garry was built in 1830 by the Hudson's Bay Co. on the western bank of the Red River. This is Canada’s oldest collection of stone fur trade buildings. Hudson’s Bay Co. trappers and traders worked here in the 1850s.

Mr. Thomas, the muralist, says that if done right, the project will be an important space for the Indigenous population. “For the longest time, we as Indigenous people were so oppressed and silenced. Now we are having these opportunities to restructure ourselves as peoples and our culture,” he says, “by just having the same chance at life that any settler has had.”

That’s not to say he’s not still skeptical of HBC motives. While the company has portrayed the transfer as a commitment to Reconciliation, the building is so old, Mr. Thomas explains, that its value was assessed at $0. By handing it over, they solved a problem for themselves, he says.

He has never been shy about voicing criticism of the colonial company. The first version of his mural is on the walls of the Qaumajuq cafe. The Winnipeg Art Gallery later asked him to replicate it in the HBC. He designed it digitally and was able to stretch it to fit the window’s dimensions.

It’s the exact same version – except for the patterns on the turtle shell. On the HBC rendering, Mr. Thomas designed the scutes (scales) in black to spell the words “land back.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Photos of Sophia Smoke, who is a member of Dakota Plains Wahpeton First Nation, with her grandmother, who taught her the jingle dress dance, are seen in an album, on May 13, 2022, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.

As she sits on the couch in the living room of her family’s home, Sophia Smoke thinks about the effects a project of this magnitude will have, too. Her hair is pulled back in a neat braid. She is wearing a colorful beaded necklace created by a young artist from Idaho, Kylee White of the Nez Perce Tribe. The self-possessed teen smiles easily – and often.

To her, one of the major benefits of creating such a prominent space in downtown Winnipeg will be what it means for Indigenous youth – for her generation.

“My friends and I are always talking about ‘land back,’ ‘land back.’ Now we’re going to ‘land back’ this giant, beautiful building,” she says. “It’s happening close to home. It’s no longer a far-off fairy tale.”

On a fundamental level, she feels it is different to be Indigenous in Canada today. “I think in my generation now we have the tools to carve out these places,” Sophia says. “And the Hudson’s Bay Co., I think, was driven by the idea of carving out a space in the middle of Winnipeg to be Indigenous – to give [Indigenous people] that safe place in order to go and carve out more places.”

Her mother struggled to assert that strong sense of identity when she was growing up, leaving her reserve for high school and later attending a university. “You want to defend your history and you want to defend your community and stand up for yourself, but you never quite have the confidence,” Ms. Smoke says. “So when I see my kid being unafraid and unabashedly Indigenous, it makes me really proud.”

And she sees it as part of a political rise and awakening in Indigenous communities – the HBC building just one part of it.

“Where the leaders, when I was growing up, were trying to fit in a space and be a presence, the leaders today have a presence and are making space for youths,” she says. “And the youths are the ones who will bring this Indigenous worldview to the world stage.”

Editor’s note: This story was first published online on June 2, 2022. This version was expanded for print and featured as the cover story in the July 12 & 19 edition of the Monitor Weekly.

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