Southern Chiefs plan $130M redevelopment of The Bay as symbol of reconciliation

The Hudson’s Bay Co., which facilitated the colonization of western Canada 352 years ago, is about to transfer its former flagship department store in downtown Winnipeg to Indigenous ownership.

On Friday morning, The Bay will hand over its six-storey, 655,000-square-foot building at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota Nations in southern Manitoba. 

The SCO plans to spend $130 million in the coming years transforming the former Bay building into a mixed-use development called Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, or “it is visible.”

Plans for the project include 300 affordable housing units for members of Southern First Nations, two restaurants, a public atrium, a rooftop garden, a museum and an art gallery.

One of the restaurants, on the main floor, will serve First Nations cuisine. The second will be a reboot of the Bay department store’s Paddlewheel restaurant.

The project will also include office space for Indigenous entrepreneurs, a health centre, a childcare facility, a seniors centre, a new seat of government for the SCO and a memorial for residential school victims and survivors.

The SCO plans to transfer two beaver pelts and one elk hide to Richard Baker, the HBC’s governor and executive chairman, as a symbolic payment for the building, which has been valued at $0 due to the cost associated with renovating the 92-year-old structure and maintaining its heritage elements.

“What we wanted to do is really to create an opportunity to create reconciliation, to create a real symbol of what the future holds for Indigenous people in this country,” Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the SCO said in an interview at The Bay on Thursday.

“This is the most iconic building, I think, in Winnipeg and probably all of Manitoba and we wanted to ensure that if we have the opportunity to acquire the building, that we would do everything we can to address the needs and to create as much opportunity for the Indigenous community and also for Winnipeg broadly.”

Baker said in a statement it was important for his company to ensure The Bay is redeveloped sustainably and in a meaningful way.

“We believe [Southern Chiefs] is the right steward for this location, and can create a new community landmark that will help advance reconciliation,” he said.

SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said the transfer of The Bay is about “land back” and reconciliation. (Randall MacKenzie/CBC)

The downtown Bay opened in 1926 as one of the most important commercial structures in downtown Winnipeg at a time when the city’s growth had already been stunted by the aftermath of the First World War, the inconclusive result of the Winnipeg General Strike and the reduction of railway subsidies that fuelled the city’s initial growth.

The department store fell into decline in the 1990s, as downtown Winnipeg’s retail sector lost its lustre, initially to shopping malls in suburban neighbourhoods and later to online retailers.

The Bay’s operations were scaled back floor by floor until the building was shuttered in November 2020, when the second wave of COVID-19 hastened a closure initially planned for the following winter.

Officials with the city and province started working on a redevelopment plan soon after, with former premier Brian Pallister announcing $25 million in provincial funding in 2021.

Daniels said the Southern Chiefs’ Organization entered into discussions 18 months ago. Daniels said he flew to New York to meet with The Bay’s Baker in 2021.

A bison was placed on the main floor of The Bay in preparation for Friday’s transfer ceremony. (Sheila North/CBC)

The Grand Chief noted the symmetry in receiving the building from The Hudson’s Bay Co., which was established in 1670 to facilitate the fur trade in what would eventually become western Canada.

The trade routes that extended from York Factory at Hudson Bay would open up Indigenous lands to European settlement, including the future site of Winnipeg at the Red River Colony.

“This is about reconciliation, economic reconciliation,” Daniels said. “It’s about land back, getting the land back and also helping and supporting us in getting that land back and making sure that it’s successful.

“So we have a commitment from HBC not only to transfer the building, but also to work with us as a partner and to support us in any way they can.”

An artist’s conception of the interior of the redeveloped Bay. (Southern Chiefs Organization)

A source with the provincial government said the province will contribute $10 million to the project. The federal government is expected to commit cash of its own.

The City of Winnipeg is expected to contribute tax incentives. A source with the city said a proposal is expected to come before city council in June.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Heather Stefanson and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman are slated to join Daniels and Baker for the transfer ceremony on Friday at 10 a.m.