The flagship Hudson’s Bay Store handed over to the Indigenous Group

It was a long and sad death for the 600,000-square-foot store. Only two of the white monolith’s six sales floors were still in use when its cash registers finally went silent.

By that time, the start of 2021, many had high hopes that Bay’s store would avoid the fate of the nearby Eaton outlet, which had been torn down to make way for the Winnipeg Jets’ arena. But the fate of the property was very uncertain, with a real estate company estimating the location at $ 0 because of what a renovation or demolition would cost.

Just over a week ago, however, the future of the landmark was secured – and most likely not how many had expected. The Bay announced that it donated the property and building to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which represents 34 Manitoba First Nations. After securing about $ 100 million in funding, the majority from the federal government, Southern Chiefs have ambitious plans for the site: affordable housing, nursing homes, a health center, a daycare, a museum, meeting rooms and restaurants, among others. other facilities. The plans also include a revival of the old store’s Paddlewheel Restaurant, which many readers happily remembered in their emails last year.

Above all, Bay’s decision to hand over its former headquarters to a First Nations group in the city with Canada’s largest indigenous urban population is deeply symbolic. The Bay was more than any other organization a driving force behind the European colonization of Canada. The company was founded in 1670 to exploit the fur trade in Ruperts Land, an area that makes up about a third of present-day Canada. King Charles II, without consulting the native people, claimed the territory as England and gave it to his cousin. The company’s relationship with indigenous peoples from that time was largely an exploitation.

“It is absolutely right that the First Nations be given this country back,” Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization told me. “I think it shows that Canada has an interest in taking an active role in rebuilding its relationship with indigenous peoples.”

Chief Daniels told me that negotiations on the acquisition of the building went back at least 18 months. Early on, said Chief Daniels, he traveled to New York with, among others, Phil Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, to meet with Richard A. Baker, the real estate magnate who owns the department store chain. He said that in addition to agreeing to donate the building to the group, Mr Baker promised to work with the chiefs on its revival.

The plan for the renovation is in advanced stages, Chief Daniels said, although negotiations are still underway for additional funding of about $ 30 million.

The often poorly defined concept of “land back” has become the focus of a lot of indigenous peoples in recent years. Many indigenous peoples define it as when governments return land – or crown land, as it is commonly called – to the first nations and other indigenous groups. Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, the acting head of the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Manitoba, said the Bay project would not really qualify as land back unless the federal government formally recognized the store as a city reserve or sovereign native territory.

But he still praised the project, known as Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, in which he has not been involved.

“It’s a great initiative,” he said. “People should be very proud.”

Professor Sinclair said the project would benefit more than just indigenous peoples, arguing that it would also be a blessing for Winnipeg and its struggling center.

“Indigenous people want to reclaim a space that is of important historical value to us,” he told me, “but they also want to clean up a mess left behind by a large company.”

This week’s Trans Canada section was compiled by Vjosa Isai, a Canadian news assistant at The New York Times.

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Ian Austen, who lives in Windsor, Ontario, was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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