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Bay Daze

BY Julia Williams
Photography by Glenbow archives na-1905-27

A Cree woman in a Bay point blanket, circa 1890.

Champions of Canadian identity have been launched into full battle mode with speculation that US retail giant Target Corp. might buy part of the 334-year-old Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC). While weeping into their striped blankets, critics have been quick to gloss over the checkered history of Canada’s oldest institution. Maybe it’s time Canadians took a look at what kind of company we might be bidding farewell, and say good riddance to:

A corporate empire

HBC once controlled one-twelfth of the earth’s land surface thanks to the British land grant it received in 1670. With no obligations to the land, its native inhabitants or even potential European settlers, the company was free to exercise monopoly control over the fur trade for the next two centuries. When demand for fur dropped, HBC sold Rupert’s Land back to Canada and focused its expansion on acquiring smaller businesses (Zellers, Simpson’s, Woodward’s) and investing in natural resources such as oil and gas.

A deadly legacy

For many native communities, it’s disappointing that HBC’s striped point blankets have become a cultural icon in other parts of Canada. Like the company itself, these blankets have been associated with the fur trade’s destructive impact on Canada’s indigenous peoples. Contaminated Bay blankets may have helped spread the smallpox epidemic that wiped out so many native populations during the 19th century. The Bay still promotes them as a signature item.

A business bully

When it comes to business practices, HBC has run into trouble in the past. In its fur trading days, the company is said to have exterminated all the beavers in adjacent land areas to ward off competition. More recently, it faced more than 10 charges of misleading advertising—pleading guilty to one charge in 1998 and receiving the second-largest fine in Canadian history. In 2002, the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network granted HBC the unfavourable title of Sweatshop Retailer of the Year (along with Wal-Mart).

An absentee landlord

Finally, it’s questionable whether HBC can even be considered our own. This “national company” had no stores in Ontario or Quebec until the 1960s. And until 1970—a full 300 years after the company’s creation—HBC headquarters was not in Canada, but rather, London, England.


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