The Hudson’s Bay Company is giving its historic downtown Winnipeg building to an Indigenous organization, to be used in part for affordable housing as well as an Indigenous cultural, healing and arts centre.
The company is expected to announce the gift Friday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other government representatives will be in attendance.
The six-storey, 655,000-square-foot building is being given to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization.
The store closed in November 2020.
The project’s working title is Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, meaning “it is visible” in Anishinaabe, according to the news release Thursday evening. Plans for the new centre include almost 300 affordable housing units for members of the southern First Nations in Manitoba, a public space to honour the local land and water, a museum and art gallery, two restaurants, and a health and healing centre.
The release calls the project “a public act of reclamation and reconciliation.”
Richard Baker, governor and executive chairman of HBC, said he’s been trying to figure out what to do with the building ever since 2009. It’s important and special to the company because of its age and prominence, he said, but it was clear that the sheer size of the store was not economically viable.
A year ago, the company began discussions with the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, said Baker, and he felt their ideas for the building were “visionary” and aligned with the company’s goals for the landmark.
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said the plan was designed to have the highest impact on Winnipeg citizens, especially the Indigenous population.
“It’s really about partnership from the … larger business community that helps make reconciliation a reality,” he said.
Baker said HBC recently passed on a $60-million offer for the building in favour of the Southern Chiefs’ plan.
“This was a more exciting opportunity for us,” he said.
Wanda Wuttunee, a retired professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba, said the project sounds like a great opportunity not only for Indigenous people who live in Winnipeg, but for the economy of the city, especially coming out of the pandemic. She hopes the centre will become a draw for tourists while also supporting local Indigenous communities.
“It’s much larger than just a couple of communities,” she said. “It makes sense that the government would be supporting this at all levels.”
According to the news release, the building will also become the future governance house for the chiefs of the southern First Nations, which Wuttunee said will make their services much more accessible for Indigenous people who live downtown.
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The gift is a positive step, said Wuttunee, but true economic reconciliation comes with time and space: space for independent, self-sufficient Indigenous economic activity to blossom.
Regardless, the gift from HBC sends a strong message, she said.
“(You) can’t change the past, but it’s never too late to start doing the right thing. And I think this is an awesome step forward.”
An anonymous source told The Canadian Press that Manitoba is pitching in $10 million, and that Winnipeg and the federal government will also contribute.
The building opened in 1926 and is one of the company’s original six flagship stores. At the time, it was the largest reinforced concrete building in Canada, according to HBC’s heritage website. On opening day, it served around 50,000 customers. The store has been home to multiple restaurants and several subletters, including a liquor outlet and a CIBC branch.
The building, which was recently granted heritage status, is in need of renovations, as it was built almost a century ago. However, it underwent major renovations in the 1980s, to the tune of several million dollars.
Over the years, the company scaled back retail operations at the store as consumer habits shifted. Meanwhile, conversations arose about how best to use or even redevelop the building. In 2012, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that HBC offered to sell the building to the University of Winnipeg for a “nominal cost,” as low as a dollar.
At one point, not long before the pandemic began, a real estate company valued the building at zero dollars, due to how much money it would take to bring it up to code.
The landmark location finally closed as the pandemic battered retailers everywhere. Last year, the provincial government announced a $25-million trust to help preserve and enhance the building. At the time, HBC said it was in discussions with several organizations on how best to use the site.
Daniels said the Southern Chiefs’ Organization is committed to ensuring Indigenous people are not only hired for the contracts to upgrade the building but also trained on site, as well as being an integral part of the ongoing management of the building.
Janis Thiessen, a history professor at the University of Winnipeg, said the gift is a big gesture given the prominence of the location. The building will cost millions to be usable again, so financial support such as contributions from government will be key to the success of this plan, she said.
The donation itself is likely a big weight off HBC’s shoulders, she added, as the company has been trying to figure out what to do with it for years.
Thiessen said, as a resident, it will be nice to see something happen to the storied landmark.
“It’s definitely an incredibly important symbolic gesture,” she said.
The current timeline for the project is 36 months.
With files from The Canadian Press
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