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Returning land and staving off decay: What the transfer of the Bay building means to Winnipeg

There are months, years and even decades where Winnipeg never seems to change. Such is life in a slow-growth city that’s been struggling to regain momentum for more than a century after its initial railway-boom success rusted away.

Friday was not one of those classically static Winnipeg days.

The Hudson’s Bay Co.’s transfer of its former downtown flagship department store to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization signalled an immense amount of change — both in terms of the pace of returning important parcels of land to Indigenous ownership, and the degree to which Winnipeg’s leaders will tolerate the continuing decay of the inner city.

On the decolonization front, the transfer of the six-storey former Bay building is significant both symbolically and in concrete terms.

The HBC, more than any other commercial enterprise in the history of North America, was responsible for opening up the northwestern quadrant of this continent to European settlement. 

The effect on the Indigenous peoples of this continent was disastrous, as HBC governor Richard Baker acknowledged in candid terms during Friday’s transfer ceremony.

“While we are proud of our longevity, HBC played a definitive role in the colonization of Canada. The impact of our company’s history is not at all lost on me,” said Baker, citing centuries of efforts to displace Indigenous peoples from their lands and eradicate their cultures and identities.

“These things cannot be remedied by a single action, a single promise, or a single speech,” Baker continued.

“They demand real effort from everyone — the state, the church, businesses and the society as a whole to facilitate much-needed healing. We must meet our words with actions.”

returning land and staving off decay what the transfer of the bay building means to winnipeg
Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, right, raises a replica of the type of gold coin used as original trade exchange currency between HBC and First Nations, as HBC governor Richard Baker looks on during Friday’s transfer ceremony. (CBC)

And with that, the Bay’s former Winnipeg flagship, a 650,000-square-foot behemoth of a building that occupies one of the most prominent corners of the inner city, is in the hands of the 34 Manitoba Anishinaabe and Dakota nations represented by the Southern Chiefs’ Organization.

“It’s more than a building. It’s about the people in this building,” said SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, referring to the amenities planned for the $130-million redevelopment.

They include hundreds of housing units for SCO members, social services such as a health centre, and businesses serving the general public, including a redeveloped Paddlewheel restaurant.

“I think we’re turning the page into what real reconciliation means,” said Daniels, adding he hopes other businesses across Canada will follow the HBC’s example.

Motivation to find plan for building

At the same time, the HBC was highly motivated to dispose of the property to a willing and responsible developer.

If HBC retained ownership of the store it shuttered in 2020, it would have been responsible for maintaining its heritage elements, even with no revenue coming in to pay for bare-minimum building maintenance.

The three levels of government were not prepared to let the six-storey monolith sit empty in perpetuity, the way other heritage buildings have languished in and around downtown Winnipeg.

Both the James Avenue Pumping Station and the Metropolitan Theatre, for example, stood empty for decades before private owners came forward with viable redevelopment plans.

The consequences of the same thing happening to a piece of real estate as large as the Bay were far more significant.

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The Hudson’s Bay building now displays Southern Chiefs’ Organization branding. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The department store was barely shuttered before the city tasked downtown development officials with brainstorming ideas for the building.

“What I didn’t want to see is what happened at the Met, where it sat vacant for a generation,” Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman told reporters Friday.

Within months, former Manitoba premier Brian Pallister announced $25 million in redevelopment funding. His successor, Heather Stefanson, topped that up on Friday with $10 million more for the housing component.

The federal Liberal government has come to the table with a $55-million forgivable loan and another $10-million loan that must be repaid. 

The city is also being asked to improve the streetscaping around the Bay and forgo future property tax revenue emanating from the project.

Financing questions remain

But questions remain about the rest of the financing for the project, which appears to be $30 million short of its $130-million goal only months before the three-year construction project is slated to begin.

Daniels would not say on Friday whether SCO has raised any money of its own beyond what it has spent on planning.

It’s also unclear what entity will be responsible for covering any additional costs, should the project exceed the $130-million price tag.

“The government wouldn’t be giving us $100 million if we didn’t have a plan,” Daniels quipped.

returning land and staving off decay what the transfer of the bay building means to winnipeg 2
An artist’s rendition of the transformed Hudson’s Bay store in Winnipeg is shown in a handout. One of the landmark stores formerly run by the Hudson’s Bay Co. is about to undergo a major transformation. (Submitted by the Southern Chiefs’ Organization)

To be clear, even if only half of what SCO has planned for the former Bay comes to fruition, it would improve upon an empty shell of a building.

Besides, the downtown Bay has always been something of a gamble.

When the massive department store opened in 1926, Winnipeg was already skidding toward the Great Depression. The city’s initial meteoric growth had been stunted by the First World War, the inconclusive resolution of the Winnipeg General Strike and the reduction of railway subsidies. 

The Bay’s location was also questionable, given that most of Winnipeg’s early downtown development was concentrated along Main Street. The opening of Eaton’s on Portage Avenue in 1905 stretched out the city’s commercial core; the Bay expanded it further into an L-shaped dogleg two decades later.

In many ways, Winnipeg is still struggling to maintain its oversized downtown. Seventy years of suburban development and an inadequate public transit system have not helped the situation.

On its own, the transfer of the Bay to the SCO won’t save downtown any more than it will right the wrongs of colonization.

But there is no denying the significance of the move — for every resident of this city.

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