Hudson's Bay, USAThe story is available only by paid subscription. If you're interested, leave a comment or drop me an email.
Peter C. Newman
Like totems sacrificed to the French Revolution -- the trophies melted down for coinage, the statues of angels torn out of cathedrals and tossed into the Seine -- Canada's corporate selloff accelerates unabated. Once safe-and-sound corporate idols such as Air Canada, Canadian National, Future Shop, Molson's, Tim Hortons, Shoppers Drug Mart, EnCana, Club Monaco and many others are now owned or controlled by U.S. investors. So it should be no surprise that next week this country's founding commercial enterprise, the Hudson's Bay Company, becomes a plaything of South Carolina financier Jerry Zucker.
It shouldn't be a shock, but it is, because for those of us who have studied the HBC seriously, it is difficult to separate company and country. This epic acquisition (for just over $1-billion) by an American takeover artist shatters a unique 336-year link between Canada and its founding transcontinental business empire.
An essential formative influence in Canada's evolution from colony to nation, the company exercised a profound impact on our economy, geography and psyches. Its presence made us Canadian. Even now that the once-glorious Company of Adventurers has become just one more department-store sacrifice to the 100-ton gorilla known as Wal-Mart Inc., its absence will be felt.
If the metaphor holds -- if historically Canada was indeed the HBC writ large -- its demise as a core Canadian institution does not bode well for our future in a global economy. Sell too many of our big-box companies and we cease to be players in the only league that counts.
Even in this context, assigning such significance to a department store that has been in the black only once in the past seven quarters may seem melodramatic. But warnings are not always obvious. The Bay's demise as a touchstone Canadian institution sends an uncomfortable message: If we continue to cast adrift all of our historic anchors and become mere squatters on our own land, it will too late.
The question will then become not whether this century belongs to Canada (as the previous one never did), but a more urgent query: Will Canada belong to the 21st century? That's a profound dilemma and the answer should worry us all.