'Historic and monumental' step taken as Winnipeg's Bay building handed to First Nations group

·6 min read
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, right, presented beaver pelts and elk hides to Richard Baker, the governor and executive chairman of the Hudson's Bay Co., as a symbolic payment for the building. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC - image credit)
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, right, presented beaver pelts and elk hides to Richard Baker, the governor and executive chairman of the Hudson's Bay Co., as a symbolic payment for the building. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC - image credit)

Winnipeg's downtown Hudson's Bay building, which turns 100 years old in four years, began a rebirth on Friday as the company rooted in a fur trading past with Indigenous people transferred the property to a First Nations group.

"This place is a place to be honoured and supportive of First Nations people, our rich history, and invite all who wish to come and learn together," said Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs' Organization.

The powerful symbolism of having a colonial store in the hands of Indigenous Peoples will stand as a "beacon of hope," Daniels said.

In a nod to history, the SCO handed two beaver pelts and two elk hides to Richard Baker, the governor and executive chairman of the Hudson's Bay Co., as a symbolic payment for the building.

According to the HBC royal charter of 1670, the rent of two beaver and two elk was to be paid by the company whenever a British monarch visited Canada, said SCO chief operating officer Jennifer Rattray.

"The ceremony surrounding the payment was only performed four times in HBC history," she said.

Flanked by members of the SCO chiefs' executive committee on Friday, Daniels and Baker conducted it for the fifth time.

Jeff Stapleton/CBC
Jeff Stapleton/CBC

With that SCO "is reclaiming the rent ceremony and together with the Hudson's Bay Co., we are leading change and reconciliation," Daniels said.

"This marks the beginning of a new future for First Nations peoples and for all Canadians."

Baker was also presented with a traditional beaver pelt hat.

In turn, he gave Daniels a replica of a gold coin used as the original trade exchange currency between HBC and First Nations, and a print of an 1819 map by HBC surveyor Peter Fidler of part of southern Manitoba.

Southern Chiefs' Organization youth delegate Sophia Smoke, who was chosen as the oral historian for the event, says the new chapter for the building will give Indigenous youth hope for the future.

"This isn't impossible anymore. We are slowly breaking glass ceilings, it's our job now and we can be excited and we don't have to dream anymore," she said.

"One day I will be telling these stories and that is why it's so important to be here."

CBC
CBC

The 14-year-old said housing has been an issue for Indigenous people, but the building will do more than just put a roof over their heads.

"A place to come together where we know we will be accepted, and a place where we can come and know we are Indigenous and we can be that together, will do wonders for confidence and mental health and even housing," she said.

Closed in 2020, the six-storey, 655,000-square-foot landmark building at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard was appraised at $0 in 2019 because it has a tax liability in excess of $300,000 and would cost an estimated $111 million to bring up to code while maintaining its heritage elements.

Daniels called the donation of the building to the SCO a "historic and monumental" step toward reconciliation in Canada.

"Reconciliation is not just a word, it is meant to have action, and this is an example of that action," he said. "Today sets the standard of what reconciliation in our country can look like."

Jeff Stapleton/CBC
Jeff Stapleton/CBC

Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn — meaning "it is visible" in Anishinaabemowin, or Ojibway — is the name of the project, which promises 289 affordable housing units for members of southern Manitoba First Nations, two restaurants, a public atrium, a rooftop garden, a museum and an art gallery.

The residential units will "address a crisis and dire shortage of First Nations housing," Daniels said. "Up to 500 people will find shelter and opportunity for success here."

With plans for a health centre that will embrace both western and traditional medical practices, it will also be a place where elders "will be supported and continue to share their world wisdom," Daniels said.

It will also become the governance house for the chiefs of the southern First Nations in Manitoba, he added.

The SCO represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota Nations in southern Manitoba and more than 81,000 people.

"The vision really is to create as much opportunity as we can," Daniels said, adding the investment in the project will benefit the entire city.

Submitted by the Southern Chiefs’ Organization
Submitted by the Southern Chiefs’ Organization

Baker, a U.S. investor who bought HBC in 2008, was unable to pronounce "Anishinaabe" in his land acknowledgment and stumbled over the word "reconciliation," but didn't shy away from the Bay's tumultuous history with First Nations.

That history includes a fur trade that dramatically changed how First Nations people lived, opening up Indigenous lands to European settlement and eventually selling Rupert's Land — a vast territory of northern wilderness that represented its trading monopoly area — to Canada without consulting the Indigenous people or considering their sovereignty.

"HBC played a definitive role in the colonization of Canada. The impact of our country's history is not at all lost on me and is part of the reason we are all here today," Baker said.

Submitted by the Southern Chiefs' Organization
Submitted by the Southern Chiefs' Organization

"This is why I know that this dedication about this building is the right one. The Southern Chiefs' Organization has a revolutionary vision for this iconic space and what it can bring to the city of Winnipeg and to the province of Manitoba.

"Where we stand now will become a hub for governance and culture, heritage and healing, commerce and care. There is no better group to take stewardship of this space and truly make it their own."

The Manitoba government is providing $35 million to help with the redevelopment of the space (a $25-million trust fund announced last year and $10 million just announced for the housing component).

Another $65 million is coming from the federal government (a $55-million forgivable loan and a $10-million low-cost loan).

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said the city has been asked to improve streetscaping and contribute tax increment financing, which would involve forgoing future property tax revenue emanating from the site.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson believes the redeveloped building, sitting empty for two years, "is going to bring back that vibrancy to the downtown area … again it's going to be a place for people to gather."

Jeff Stapleton/CBC
Jeff Stapleton/CBC

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in Winnipeg for Friday's transfer of ownership, said the news is about more than just a building.

"It's actually about rebuilding — rebuilding trust, rebuilding landmarks and rebuilding relationships," he said.

"Winnipeg has the largest Indigenous population of any city in Canada, and I know that today's project will inspire people from coast to coast to coast."

Phil Fontaine, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the transfer of ownership of the downtown landmark is "without a doubt" an act of reconciliation.

"That rebuilding of the relationship will be based on reclaiming this building, and transforming it into a place that will reflect the very deep interests of Indigenous peoples in the city and in the province," Fontaine said.

"Reconciliation runs in many directions. Each path represents a challenge and as special as this moment has been, there is still an incredible journey that we have to walk together."

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