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June 30, 2017

The Hudson’s Bay Company – Celebrating Canada’s Heritage

The history of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) is rooted in the history of Manitoba and Canada. It is a narrative built on innovation and transitions; resiliency and adaptation; curiosity and discovery.

Winnipeg’s downtown HBC store photographed by L.B. Foote on July 29, 1929.
Source: Archives of Manitoba


The history of the oldest company in North America began with the fur trade, initiated by Frobisher’s discovery of Hudson Strait in his search for the Northwest Passage, and Henry Hudson’s discovery of Hudson Bay. This led to the fur-trading expedition by Radisson and DeGroseilliers via the sailing vessels the Eaglet, and the Nonsuch (a replica of which is now featured at the Museum of Man and Nature) financed by King Charles II and business associates – the original investors of the HBC. Only the Nonsuch secured safe passage to James Bay. Having with this expedition determined the economic viability of the fur trade, King Charles II issued in May, 1670 a Royal Charter granting lands of the Hudson Bay watershed to his cousin Prince Rupert as Governor and “The Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay”, and the HBC was established.

A replica of the Nonsuch sailing in 1970, prior to arriving at the Manitoba Museum.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Heritage

The HBC coat of arms from 1748.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Heritage

Trading posts surrounding James and Hudson Bay, and within the interior of the continent along river networks were subsequently established in partnership with First Nations over the next century with the expansion of the fur trade, culminating in a merger with the Montreal-based Northwest Company in 1821 to establish a commercial enterprise encompassing the continent. In 1869 the HBC surrendered this territory in a Deed of Surrender to the newly self-governed country of Canada as an agreement between the British Company and British Crown, with compensation from the sale of the land holdings providing the primary source of revenue for HBC. Both the Deed of Surrender and the Manitoba Act (which became law on May 12, 1870) establishing Manitoba as Canada’s fifth Province, came into effect on the same day in 1870. The British North America Act of 1867 and Deed of Surrender of 1870 are both considered pivotal to the creation of Canada.

HBC post Upper Fort Garry in 1871.
Source: Wintorbos and the Toronto News Company, 1889

HBC post Lower Fort Garry in 1904.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Heritage

Western settlement and the arrival of the Gold Rush further marked a transition in the HBC from fur trade to retail and sales in the late nineteenth century. In Winnipeg, Upper Fort Garry and the Forks served as the centre for trade, education, commerce, and government from 1838 until its demolition in 1882. The initial Hudson Bay store was built at the corner of Main and York in 1881. However, in recognition of increasing demand for department stores and following the example of Harrods, HBC developed six signature Hudson’s Bay Company department stores following 1912, one of which was in Winnipeg. In 1926, the Winnipeg downtown store was built at what was considered to be the hub of economic, retail, and shopping activity, namely its present-day location at Portage and Memorial. Little was it known that such dynamic and shifting localized centres of economic, social, and political activity in downtown Winnipeg would continue to this day.

The HCB store in Winnipeg at Main and York in 1926.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Heritage


The Bay downtown, located at Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard, is a symbol of the history that defines the HBC, Manitoba, and Canada, and a critical element of Manitoba’s and Canada’s built heritage.

The Winnipeg Bay downtown store was the Hudson Bay Company’s original “flagship” store.1 The Portage and Memorial location for the Bay downtown is noted by heritage HBC as a “fortunate” site in light not only of its Portage Avenue location, but also its proximity to the Manitoba provincial Legislature built in 1920. [On the HBC heritage website it is noted “The location of the new store site was extremely fortunate. Not only was it directly on Portage Avenue but sat at the corner of Portage and the access road leading to the new provincial Legislature.”2] This strategic location underscores the Bay downtown’s historical and cultural significance and value to our city, province, and country.

Construction begins on the downtown HBC store in Winnipeg, September 15, 1925.
Source: HBC Archives and the Winnipeg Free Press

Construction began in September, 1925, and required 300 men, 120 teams of horses, steam shovels and 20 trucks to establish the basement and foundation, and drive 151 pillars into 52 feet of bedrock. Local materials were used including Tyndall limestone, steel, and lumber. The downtown store was opened in November, 1926. Unique features included murals depicting the history of the HBC, and twelve elevators later reduced to six. The store initially featured a library on the second floor. An auditorium and orchestra were introduced in later years, and in keeping with the HBC’s support of discovery, navigation and innovation, a beacon was installed in 1930 as a contribution to the aviation industry and airmail, providing the “brightest light in the British Empire”.3

A series of time lapse photos capturing the construction of the downtown HBC store in Winnipeg.
Source: HBC Archives and the Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeg has been described as the “First City of the HBC”.4 Built heritage that pays tribute to this description include the Upper Fort Garry Gate, Lower Fort Garry, the downtown Hudson’s Bay store, the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives located in what was constructed as the Winnipeg Auditorium in 1932 on Vaughan, the Manitoba Museum, Hudson’s Bay House (Gibraltar House, built in 1911 and headquarters for the HBC Canadian operations until 1987), and the HBC warehouse (the Keg). The importance of the HBC to Manitoba and Canada and our cultural history is reflected in donation by the HBC of records to the Province of Manitoba in 1994 and subsequent inclusion of the HBCA in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Registry in 2007.5 The Hudson’s Bay Company Gallery at the Manitoba Museum, which opened in May, 2000, features the Hudson’s Bay Company Museum Collection, also known as Manitoba’s “National Treasure”,6 and builds upon the tradition of public museum exhibitions first housed in the Main Street location in 1922, and in 1926 in the present downtown Bay location, to highlight the history, heritage, and culture upon which the Company and its partnerships with First Nations was founded. The Beaver, established in commemoration of the HBC’s 250th anniversary provided an additional example of the Company’s contributions to Canada’s cultural and social identity. Under the name the Hudson’s Bay Company, Arts, and Crafts, HBC acted as a marketing agency for Inuit Art and in 1981 opened a showroom for Inuit Art in Toronto. The HBC also acted “as a patron of science” and contributed to scientific networks associated with mapping and field observations.

Founded by the HBC in 1920, the February 1922 edition of The Beaver featured “The Canadian Girl” from the Winnipeg Winter Carnival.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Heritage

It is this link between HBC and the Arts, sciences, and cultural heritage that provides the foundation for HBC’s reinvention in the 21st century as a centre for ideas and their exchange for the benefit of society, building upon the commercial enterprise and initiatives of the 20th century.


The Bay downtown store is today occupied on two floors by the HBC as a department store. Events such as the New Music Festival performance “Ghosts of the Hudson’s Bay Building” in February, and the Third+Bird pop-up market promoted rediscovery of this building’s history and potential in contemporary society to inspire. In May the Bay downtown was also highlighted by Doors Open Winnipeg. It was the topic of discussion for Frontlines: Bay Daze Presentation and Panel Discussion, the event which commenced the Doors Open Winnipeg weekend. The Bay downtown store itself was also a building featured in Doors Open Winnipeg, with the sixth floor, home to the shuttered Paddlewheel Restaurant, being opened to the public for tours. All the events highlighted the need for sustained commitment to a vision that rediscovers our past for a more hopeful future.

An early 20th century image of Winnipeg’s downtown HBC store with the Manitoba Legislative Building in the background.
Source: PastForward

The downtown Winnipeg HBC store celebrates the end of WWII.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press.


Today, the Bay has the potential to be key player in social enterprise as local and global economies and societies transition to address the innumerable challenges of the 21st century.

Redevelopment of the Bay provides an opportunity to revisit Manitoba’s history and in particular explore means to rediscover the connection between the Hudson Bay building, railway line, and port of Churchill as economic centres of trade and innovation for Manitoba and Canada.

Individuals such as architect and principal of Place Economics, Don Rypkema, have emphasized the economic opportunities and benefits to be found in heritage preservation. In a 2011 article, reporter Carma Wadley summarizes this truth in the statement “Old buildings are the new economy”.7 Economic benefits include enhanced employment opportunities, tourism, increased property values. Environmental benefits include reduced emissions, waste, and consumption, and social benefits include more diverse and walkable communities.

The HBC Wholesale Dry-goods Department in Winnipeg on May 10, 1923.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Heritage

A training program dedicated to the preservation and restoration of heritage buildings could be established in Manitoba, with the Bay downtown store as the foundation and launch for such a program. The training program could be established locally through partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and Aki Energy. Programs comparable to Strive for Change in California and training programs in the UK offered through such entities as Historic England that encourage property owners to train and hire individuals in heritage preservation could be developed. Canadian examples include education programs offered through Heritage BC, and conservation programs across Canada as listed at the National Trust for Canada.

Manitoba is in need of such a conservation program, which could be created through partnerships between Heritage Winnipeg, Red River College, the UofW and/or the UofM, and Habitat for Humanity to further address social needs. Instilling a sense of pride in Winnipeg’s older buildings provides a means of revitalizing the city and offering hope, employment and accommodation to promote and ensure a more equitable and progressive society.

The downtown Winnipeg HBC store in 2017.
Source: The Metro

The Bay downtown store, as a symbol of innovation and resilience demonstrated by the HBC, our city, province, and country, has the opportunity to allow us to collectively reinvent and navigate the challenges of the 21st century, and to realize a vision for our city, province, and country predicated on hope and the imagination.


Guest post by J.V. Lukovich.
Editing and images by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg.


Endnote 1

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Endnote 5

Endnote 6 | Redevelopment of the Bay also has the potential to create employment opportunities and could serve as the foundation for a longer-term apprenticeship program in the restoration of historic buildings. Participants in the BUILD Inc. and Aki Energy programs could help with refurbishment of the Bay. Partnerships could also be established with Habitat for Humanity.

Endnote 7

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