It was a long and sad demise for the 600,000-square-foot store. Only two of the six white monolith sales floors were still in use when their cash registers finally fell silent.
At the time, early 2021, many had high hopes that Bay’s store would avoid the fate of the neighboring Eaton’s store, which had been demolished to make way for the Winnipeg Jets’ arena. But the fate of the property was highly uncertain, with one real estate company valuing the location at $0 because of what a renovation or demolition would cost.
However, just over a week ago, the future of the landmark was assured, and probably not how many had anticipated. The Bay announced it would turn over the property and building to the Southern Chiefs Organization, which represents 34 Manitoba First Nations. Having secured around C$100 million in funding, most of it from the federal government, the Southern Chiefs have ambitious plans for the site: affordable housing, assisted living, a healing center, a daycare center, a museum, meeting spaces and restaurants, among others. other amenities. Plans also include the revival of the old store’s Paddlewheel restaurant, which many readers fondly remembered in their emails last year.
Above all, Bay’s decision to hand over its former headquarters to a group of First Nations in the city with the largest urban indigenous population in Canada 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 handed it over to his cousin. The company’s relationship with indigenous peoples from that point on was largely one of exploitation.
“It is very appropriate that this land be returned to the First Nations,” Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs Organization told me. “I think it shows that companies in Canada have an interest in taking an active role in rebuilding their relationship with indigenous peoples.”
Chief Daniels told me that the negotiations for the acquisition of the building went back at least 18 months. Initially, 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 mogul 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 bosses on its revival.
The plan for the renovation is in advanced stages, Chief Daniels said, though negotiations are still ongoing for additional funding of about C$30 million.
The often ill-defined concept of “land reclamation” has become the focus of many indigenous peoples in recent years. Many indigenous peoples define it as when governments return land, or crown land as it is commonly called, to First Nations and other indigenous groups. Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, interim director of the department of indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba, said the Bay project would not truly qualify as land unless the federal government formally recognized the store as an urban reserve or sovereign indigenous territory.
However, he praised the project, known as Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, in which he has not been involved.
“It’s a fantastic initiative,” he said. “People should be very proud.”
Professor Sinclair said the project would benefit more than just indigenous people, arguing that it would also be a boon to Winnipeg and its struggling inner city.
“Indigenous peoples will reoccupy a space that has important historical value for us,” he told me, “but they will also clean up a mess left behind by a large company.”
This week’s Trans Canada section was compiled by Vjosa Isai, 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 on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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