There are months, years and even decades where Winnipeg never seems to change. Such is life in a slow-growing city that has struggled to regain its momentum for more than a century after its initial rail boom success rusted away.
Friday was not one of those typically static days in Winnipeg.
The Hudson’s Bay Company’s transfer of its former downtown flagship department store to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization marked an immense shift – both in terms of the pace of returning significant tracts of land to Aboriginal that the extent to which the rulers will tolerate the continued degradation of the city center.
On the decolonization front, the transfer of the former six-storey Bay building is significant both symbolically and concretely.
The HBC, more than any other trading enterprise in North American history, was responsible for opening up the northwest quadrant of that continent to European settlement.
The effect on the indigenous peoples of this continent has been disastrous, as HBC Governor Richard Baker admitted in candid terms during Friday’s handover ceremony.
“Although we are proud of our longevity, HBC was instrumental in the colonization of Canada. The impact of our company’s history is not lost on me at all,” Baker said, citing centuries of efforts to displace Indigenous peoples from their lands and eradicate their cultures and identities.
“These issues cannot be solved by one action, one promise, or one speech,” Baker continued.
“They require a real effort from everyone – the state, the church, business and society as a whole to facilitate much needed healing. We must back our words with actions.”
And with that, the former flagship of Winnipeg Bay, a giant 650,000 square foot building that occupies one of the most prominent corners of downtown, is in the hands of Manitoba’s 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota Nations represented by southern leaders. ‘ Organism.
“It’s more than a building. It’s about the people in it,” SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said, referring to the amenities slated for the $130 million redevelopment.
They include hundreds of housing units for SCO members, social services such as a health center, and businesses serving the general public, including a redeveloped Paddlewheel restaurant.
“I think we’re turning the page on what true reconciliation means,” Daniels said, adding that he hopes other companies across Canada will follow HBC’s lead.
Motivation to find a construction plan
At the same time, the HBC was highly motivated to transfer ownership to a willing and responsible developer.
If HBC retained ownership of the store it closed in 2020, it would have been responsible for maintaining its heritage features, even without revenue to pay for minimal building upkeep.
The three levels of government were not prepared to leave the six-story monolith empty in perpetuity, as other heritage buildings languish in and around downtown Winnipeg.
The James Avenue Pumping Station and the Metropolitan Theatre, for example, sat empty for decades before private owners came forward with viable redevelopment plans.
The consequences of the same on real estate as large as the bay were far greater.
The department store was barely closed when the city commissioned downtown development officials to brainstorm ideas for the building.
“What I didn’t want to see was what happened at the Met, where it sat vacant for a generation,” Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said Friday.
Within months, former Manitoba premier Brian Pallister announced $25 million in redevelopment funding. His successor, Heather Stefanson, topped that on Friday with an additional $10 million for the housing component.
The federal Liberal government came to the table with a $55 million forgivable loan and another $10 million that had to be paid back.
The city is also being asked to improve the layout of the streets around the bay and forgo future property tax revenues from the project.
Funding issues remain
But questions remain about the rest of the funding for the project, which appears to be $30 million short of its target of $130 million just months before the scheduled start of the three-year construction project.
Daniels would not say on Friday whether SCO had raised equity beyond what it had spent on planning.
It is also unclear which entity will be responsible for covering the additional costs, should the project exceed the $130 million price tag.
“The government wouldn’t give us $100 million if we didn’t have a plan,” Daniels joked.
To be clear, even if only half of what SCO has planned for the old bay materializes, it would improve the empty shell of a building.
Also, downtown Bay has always been a gamble.
When the huge department store opened in 1926, Winnipeg was already sliding into the Great Depression. The city’s initial meteoric growth had been stunted by the First World War, the inconclusive resolution of the Winnipeg General Strike, and the reduction of subsidies to the railways.
The location of the bay was also questionable, given that most early development in downtown Winnipeg was concentrated along Main Street. The opening of Eaton’s on Portage Avenue in 1905 expanded the commercial core of the city; the bay widened it into an L-shaped dogleg two decades later.
In many ways, Winnipeg is still struggling to maintain its oversized downtown core. Seventy years of suburban development and an inadequate public transport system have not improved the situation.
By itself, the transfer of the Bay to the SCO will not save the city center any more than it will repair the wrongs of colonization.
But there’s no denying the significance of the move – for every inhabitant of this city.