It was a long and sad demise 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 fell silent.
At that time, the start of 2021, many had high hopes that the Bay’s store would avoid the fate of the neighboring Eaton’s outlet, which had been demolished to make way for the Winnipeg Jets’ arena. But the property’s fate was very uncertain, with one real estate firm valuing the location at $ 0 because of what a renovation or demolition would cost.
Just over a week ago, however, the landmark’s future was secured – and now likely not how many had anticipated. The Bay announced that it was giving the property and the building to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which represents 34 Manitoba First Nations. Having secured about 100 million Canadian dollars in funding, the majority from the federal government, the Southern Chiefs have ambitious plans for the site: affordable housing, assisted living, a healing center, a day care, a museum, meeting spaces and restaurants, among other amenities. The plans also include a revival of the old store’s Paddlewheel Restaurant, which many readers fondly recalled in their emails last year.
Above all, the Bay’s decision to hand over its former headquarters to a First Nations group in the city with Canada’s largest urban Indigenous population is deeply symbolic. The Bay, more than any other organization, was a driving force behind the European colonization of Canada. The company was founded in 1670 to exploit the fur trade in Rupert’s Land, an area that makes up about a third of present-day Canada. King Charles II, without consulting the Indigenous population, claimed the territory as England’s and gave it to his cousin. The company’s relationship with Indigenous people from that point on was one largely of exploitation.
“It’s quite proper that the First Nations are being given this land back,” Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs ’Organization told me. “I think it shows that corporate Canada has an interest in taking an active role in sort of rebuilding its relationship with Indigenous people.”
Chief Daniels told me that negotiations for the acquisition of the building went back at least 18 months. Early on, Chief Daniels said 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 give 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 Canadian dollars.
The often ill-defined concept of “land back” has become the focus of a lot of Indigenous people in recent years. Many Indigenous people 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 that the Bay project would not truly qualify as land back unless the federal government formally recognized the store as an urban reserve, or sovereign Indigenous territory.
But he nevertheless praised the project, known as Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, which he has not been involved in.
“It’s a fantastic initiative,” he said. “People should be very proud.”
Professor Sinclair said that the project would benefit more than just Indigenous people, arguing that it would also be a boon to Winnipeg and its struggling downtown.
“Indigenous peoples will be reoccupying a space that is of important historical value to us,” he told me, “but they will also be cleaning up a mess that a big company left behind.”
This week’s Trans Canada section was compiled by Vjosa Isai, a Canada news assistant at The New York Times.
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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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