HBC has a rich past but does the iconic Canadian retailer have a future?

Above the city’s busiest subway station, the Hudson’s Bay at Bloor and Yonge streets is deadly quiet.

A few people walk in from the underground concourse to have a look at the men’s winter clearance shirts, an affordable rack of out of season yellows, purples and greens. Nearby, there is a table of full-priced spring sweaters. Once carefully folded, they’ve been left in a heap by someone looking for the right size.

It’s Thursday afternoon and a shopper in a purple parka stands over a table of polo shirts, mildly frustrated. She had picked up a light blue one from a clearance rack only to be told by a staff member that this table, right here, was its true, full-price home.

She balks at giving her name, but describes herself as a Bay shopper since “forever,” finding its quality better than Sears, with the exception of appliances. She likes the Bloor and Yonge location because it’s quiet — so quiet she wonders if it will be around much longer.

“Look, it’s dead,” she says, motioning to the racks of men’s active wear with few active men in sight.

It seems inconceivable that a company poised to celebrate its 350th anniversary — a company integral to Canada’s founding fabric — might one day disappear. Yet loyal shoppers couldn’t help but fear the worst when news spread this week of the money-losing iconic company’s latest sale.

On Thursday, Hudson Bay Co. executive chairman Richard Baker won shareholder approval to take the retailer private, ending a battle with a Toronto-based minority shareholder group that dragged on for months.

The $2 billion transaction is expected to be finalized next week. It leaves Baker and his allies in the buyout to freely reshape a company, which in the second quarter of 2019 lost close to $1 billion.

The fear among loyal Bay watchers and shoppers is that Baker, who co-owns one of the largest real estate development companies in the U.S., is now free to sell HBC’s valuable real estate, which includes 90 Bay stores in Canada, most of them in prime locations.

HBC has 250 stores and 30,000 employees across it’s Hudson’s Bay, Saks Fifth Avenue and Saks Off 5th brands. Baker, the company’s American governor since 2008, spoke only of launching new websites for online sales and reinvesting in the company after his privatization victory.

Sure, Canadians have seen other trusted department stores disappear — Eaton’s, Simpsons, and Zellers, to name a few. But none came close to the historical heft of the Hudson’s Bay Co., the oldest company in North America.

Metis village at Hudson's Bay post, Churchill Manitoba. Photo taken circa Sep. 12, 1929.

Whatever Baker and his co-owners do with it, HBC loyalists like Ottawa historian Mark Bourrie hope “they understand the value of what they’ve got.

“The history of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the history of Canada are interconnected,” says Bourrie, also a lawyer and author of “Rush Runner: The adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson,” the 17th century “wild man” who co-founded HBC.

The event that perhaps captures this connection most vividly, Bourrie adds, is the last spike for the Canadian Pacific Railway, driven in 1885 by Donald Smith, a director and largest shareholder of HBC, who was soon to become its governor. (Smith was also director of the CPR at the time.)

Radisson’s entrepreneurial coup in the late 1600s was to cut out the middlemen in the fur trade and deal directly with Cree trappers, Bourrie says. He and another French fur trader got support in England from Prince Rupert, cousin of King Charles II, and several merchants to invest in ships from Hudson Bay filled with furs.

International buyers examining silver fox skins at the Hudson's Bay Company's auction at Beaver Hall, London, November 25, 1932:

It quickly became a lucrative business. Felt hats made from beaver fur were de rigueur in Europe. “If you had any sort of claim to be upper middle class or upper class, you had to have a beaver hat,” Bourrie says.

And as most school kids know, a royal charter was proclaimed on May 2, 1670, giving the “Governor and company of adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay” exclusive trading rights to Rupert’s Land, a territory so vast it was eventually divided among five provinces, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

In return, the company had to pay a rent to the Crown of two elk pelts and two black beavers whenever royalty set foot on the territory. The last time this occurred was in 1970, when Queen Elizabeth II received two beavers frolicking in a water tank.

The Old Blubber Station of the Hudson's Bay Company in Pangnirtung on April 16, 2017 on Baffin Island, Canada.

Bourrie speculates that were it not for the British-backed company’s claims to western Canada, “the Americans would have pulled a Texas on us” — a reference to the 1840s war that saw Mexico lose a large chunk of what is now the American southwest.

For the Indigenous trappers HBC relied on, the trade was “a mixed blessing,” says Arthur Ray, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia. Along with the guns, pots, foodstuffs and the now-iconic point blankets, which were bartered for furs at HBC trading posts, came “smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and all sorts of diseases they hadn’t had to deal,” Ray notes.

After confederation, the company sold Rupert’s Land to the Canadian government for 300,000 pounds and a swath of the fertile areas to be opened for settlement.

HBC quickly became a major land developer in western Canada. It got into the oil and gas business in 1926, and by then had six flagship stores across the west, including what is now a grand heritage building in the heart of Winnipeg.

The Bay store at Portage Avenue and Colony Street in Winnipeg. It was one of six flagship stores across western Canada and is now a grand heritage building in the heart of Winnipeg.

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Ray walked into the Winnipeg store for the first time in 1965. He grew up in Wisconsin, where he studied the early years of the French fur trade in that state before moving to Winnipeg to teach and continue graduate work.

“It was impressive,” Ray says of the store. “It had a grand dining room on the top floor and a wonderful gourmet food section. Now it’s kind of a sad discount store. In the basement, you might find some canned sardines.

“That store manifests the trouble they’re having,” adds Ray, author of the 1990 book, “The Fur Trade in the Industrial Age,” largely dealing with HBC’s 19th and 20th century history.

Winnipeg is also home of the Hudson Bay Company archives, an enormous collection detailing the first 250 years of the company’s history. In 2007, UNESCO included the documents in it’s “Memory of the World Register,” which helps preserve records deemed significant to the world’s heritage.

Ray, who has acted as an expert witness in Indigenous land claim cases, says the economic information contained in HBC’s records has been used to bolster Indigenous claims in several cases.

Métis visual artist Rosalie Favell and others have used the records to track their ancestry. Favell, who is based in Ottawa, traced it to a white Englishman named John Favel (who spelled his surname with a single L) in the late 1700s.

Metis visual artist Rosalie Favell's 1999 artwork, "I Awoke to Find My Spirit Had Returned," shows her in a scene from the "Wizard of Oz," covered in a striped Hudson Bay's point blanket, with Louis Riel peering at her through the bedroom window. Favel has used HBC records to track her ancestry and traced it back to a Cree woman named Tittameg and white Englishman John Favel (who spelled his surname with a single L) in the late 1700s. "I'm very grateful to Hudson Bay for their meticulous record-keeping" said Favell, noting it allowed her to accurately capture her Cree roots through Tittameg.

HBC sent Favel to work in the Moose Factory settlement in what is now Ontario. There, he did what many white men did — had children with an Indigenous woman.

The Cree woman’s name was Tittameg, a detail preserved in files by the trading company’s clerks. Favell learned something else too; unlike other fur traders who returned to their English wife and children, John Favel remained here when he retired.

“I’m very grateful to Hudson Bay for their meticulous record-keeping” said Favell, noting it allowed her to accurately capture her Cree roots through Tittameg.

“For me, that heritage is significant … and formative of what we’ve come to know as the Métis Nation.”

Favell’s 1999 artwork, “I Awoke to Find My Spirit Had Returned,” shows her in a scene from the “Wizard of Oz,” covered in a striped Hudson Bay’s point blanket, with Louis Riel peering at her through the bedroom window.

Also in Winnipeg, the editor-in-chief of “Canada’s History” magazine, Mark Reid, is putting the finishing touches on a special edition to commemorate HBC’s 350th anniversary in May.

The magazine was founded by HBC in 1920, under the name, “The Beaver,” and became an independent non-profit in 1994. Among the stories in the special HBC edition is one on the role department stores played in the early days of the women’s rights movement.

A 1956 issue of The Beaver, a magazine published by Hudson's Bay Company.

There were few places in the early 1900s where women could go without their husbands or a chaperone, Reid says.

“Department stores became where women could gather without male overseers and talk about the unfairness of not being allowed to vote,” Reid says. “It really was a place where a lot of the women were able to organize and come together to talk about equal rights.”

Reid isn’t blind to HBC’s challenging economic prospects. But he points to another story in his special edition, one that traces the several times in its history when the company overcame looming disaster.

“If any company can find a way to navigate the 21st century’s retail transition away from bricks and mortar,” Reid says, “I’d put my money on HBC because it has a track record of survival that has lasted 350 years.

Crowd gathering on the Hudson's Bay Company wharf for the arrival of C.G.S. C.D.HOWE July 1951 in Pangnirtung, N.W.T.

In downtown Toronto, at the Hudson’s Bay flagship store at Queen and Yonge streets., it’s the end of a work day and a rush of commuters filter through the gleaming underground concourse with its mosaic tilework and fancy scones, meatballs, and gelato on offer at the Sak’s Food Hall.

One Bay staffer says he is wary of privatization, but he’ll wait and see what happens. Another directs all questions to media relations. There are more people here than at the Yonge and Bloor store, and a generally younger clientele. Still, the upper floors are quiet. A couple is sitting on a bench on the third floor, near the Room, a luxury women’s department where you can buy a Cheetah-print blazer for $2,665.

“As long as they don’t make a Target out of it,” says the woman, when asked what the future might hold for Canada’s oldest company. “Don’t go cheap.”

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