Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn transformation of former Winnipeg Bay building gets another $31M from feds

The redevelopment of the former Bay building in downtown Winnipeg is getting a $31-million boost from the federal government — on top of the $65 million Ottawa has already committed.

Dan Vandal, the federal minister responsible for Prairies Economic Development Canada and a former City of Winnipeg councillor, called the money a commitment to advancing economic reconciliation while helping to revitalize downtown.

“Our government is absolutely committed to the downtown. We know that cities are judged by downtowns and we know that downtown housing is absolutely critical to a safer, more vibrant Winnipeg,” the St. Boniface-St. Vital member of Parliament said at a Friday news conference inside the shell of the former retail building.

“We also know that Winnipeg is Canada’s most vital city when we talk about reconciliation. I often say Winnipeg is the Indigenous capital of Canada,” said Vandal, who is Métis.

The Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota First Nations in southern Manitoba, acquired the former Hudson’s Bay Co. building in 2022. The SCO is in the midst of remaking the six-storey, 655,000-square-foot landmark at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard into a development called Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn — “It is visible” in Anishinaabemowin.

“Today’s a good day,” said SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, who called the funding “a significant step” in the reconciliation journey.

The plan calls for the building to become a housing, cultural and service hub, with 350 affordable housing units, an HBC museum, two restaurants, an art gallery, office space for Indigenous entrepreneurs, a health centre, a child-care facility, a seniors centre, a new seat of government for the SCO and a memorial for residential school victims and survivors.

Daniels said roughly 8,000 hours of work has been done and 90 per cent of the people working there have been First Nations. But it is a massive project that is still in the remediation phase.

He is optimistic about a “soft opening” of at least parts of the project in 2026 — the 100th anniversary of the building.

Vandal said Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn “will stand as an example for the entire country.”

“People who come here will be able to see reconciliation in action,” he said. “Projects like this serve as beacons of hope, guiding us towards a future destined by unity and prosperity for everyone.”

A man with wavy white hair and wearing a suit stands and talks at a podium.
Dan Vandal says Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn ‘will stand as an example for the entire country.’ (Justin Fraser/CBC)

The 2021 census says there were 102,080 Indigenous people living in Winnipeg in that year. Approximately 45,000 are First Nations citizens of SCO member nations, the federal government said in a news release announcing the funding.

The Hudson’s Bay Co. vacated the downtown space on Nov. 30, 2020, and it sat empty until the redevelopment plan was announced in April 2022. The cost was initially estimated at $130 million, which was upped in December 2023 to $200 million.

The Manitoba government committed $35 million at the initial announcement in 2022, while the federal government promised $65 million (a $55-million forgivable loan and a $10-million low-cost loan) at that point. The City of Winnipeg has offered $10 million worth of tax breaks over 25 years.

Across the street from Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, the SCO plans to work with True North Real Estate Development, the real estate arm of the company that owns the Winnipeg Jets, to redevelop the Portage Place mall.

The plan is to turn it into a complex that includes a health-care tower, residential housing, community centres, offices for community organizations, retail space and food services.

The escalators and empty floors of a vacant department store are seen from inside.
A view of the interior of the former HBC building on Friday. (Gilbert Rowan/Radio-Canada)

In December, SCO and True North signed a memorandum of understanding to work collaboratively on the Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn and Portage Place projects, with a single contractor, PCL, handling management and construction of both.  

The two organizations have agreed to jointly build a residential tower on the east end of Portage Place, while True North has sold the skywalk linking Portage Place and Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn to SCO for $1.

Bernadette Smith, Manitoba’s minister of housing, addictions and homelessness, called the combination of the projects “a profound reimagining of Winnipeg’s downtown at a time when it is crucially needed.”

“The social housing that will be created here, I can already envision it. This will change so many lives,” she said, with $10 million of the provincial funding earmarked for that component.

“The community that will be created in this very building will help to unify and bring back families, help to educate, create employment opportunities and all steps needed so residents can live their full lives. I really see the vibrancy that’s going to come back downtown by what’s going to be in this place.”

Exit doors from the inside of a shuttered department store.
The exit doors to Portage Avenue from the inside of the now-shuttered Bay building are seen on Friday. (Gilbert Rowan/Radio-Canada)

Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham referred to the Bay building and the intersection of Portage and Main Street as the western and eastern gates of the city’s downtown, respectively.

In two former symbols of colonialism, Indigenous governance now stands, or soon will. The Manitoba Métis Federation is turning the former Bank of Montreal landmark at Portage and Main into the Métis Nation Heritage Centre, as the SCO takes up residence at Portage and Memorial.

“I think that’s really, really significant and very exciting,” Gillingham said.

The MMF announcement came in 2020, on the province’s 150th birthday, while this year marks Winnipeg’s 150th, Gillingham said.