2.19.2006

hbc, usa

Peter Newman, author of a four-volume history of the Hudson's Bay Company, as well as The Secret Mulroney Tapes, published an extended essay about HBC in yesterday's Globe And Mail. It's the cover story of the Globe's "Focus" section, and it's very interesting.

It begins:
Hudson's Bay, USA

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.
The story is available only by paid subscription. If you're interested, leave a comment or drop me an email.

10 comments:

doggerelblogger said...

I read this as well, but I did find that there were undertones of "all things Canadian suck" in his article - just this sort of undercurrent of loathing and mockery that made me wonder why a Canadian historian feels that Canadians are so inept? Is it exposure to all those stories, all leading to the same place, or what?

L-girl said...

I read a highly critical undertone, but it doesn't seem like loathing and mockery to me, just a very critical point of view. Certainly not "all things Canadian suck". That's how I read it, anyway.

L-girl said...

Come to think of it, I wouldn't even call it highly critical. Just un-romantic and clear-eyed, as opposed to patriotic. That's what a historian should be.

Gazetteer said...

The thing is....we are becoming hewers of wood and carriers of water for foreign masters all over again.

Well that and pumpers of oil for Big Time and Enron's former pipeline boys.

Carrie said...

I agree with the article. For some time now I've been concerned about us losing our traditions and national identity. Not the way the world sees us, I never give a wit about that, but about how our country is changing.

I'm not at all happy with HBC but then again, they priced themselves right out of the retail world. It's no wonder they couldn't stay up on their own. Which means, they weren't paying attention to who they were both in and for Canada and Canadians.

I think Canada is pretty much gone, at least it feels that way, and it's very sad. Too much multiculturalism, too much immigration, too much of things beyond our borders and not enough of our own preservation.

HBC was the final warning and we missed it. Or they missed it. I don't blame Canada for this sale, I put that responsibility squarely on HBC and the Eaton family actually.

L-girl said...

I think Canada is pretty much gone

Well, Canada is clearly here. You must mean that Canada as you prefer it has changed too much for your tastes. But change is inevitable. Change is life. Whether it be a nation, a family or a person, when it stops changing, it dies.

Too much multiculturalism, too much immigration, too much of things beyond our borders and not enough of our own preservation.

What does this mean?

Carrie said...

I mean that we are having to actually fight to keep our Canadian traditions, like we have never had before. And that is not right.

If you grew up here, you would understand. No offense intended by that. But the Canada of my parent's generation, and their parents, and even mine (remembering the 70s) is gone.

Wrye said...

2 points.

1) We've always had to fight to keep our traditions. We always will. It is the principle all three of our founding cultures have in common. But not all of them were worth keeping, and I am not sure which ones you are thinking of.

2)The time when English Canada meant ethnically British Canada is gone, yes. But mon pays c'est n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver is still as true for us as the Quebecois.

L-girl said...

If you grew up here, you would understand. No offense intended by that.

Offense taken.

But the Canada of my parent's generation, and their parents, and even mine (remembering the 70s) is gone.

No shit. Things change. The Canada of everyone's childhood is gone, as is the US, the Pakistan, the Peru and the whatever else.

Why would the Canada of your grandparents' generation still exist? Why would Canada be the same as it was when your parents were growing up? Think about it. Would you even want that?

By the way, did the Canada your grandparents grew up in have national health care? The system you don't want to see change, the one you say you had to grow up here to understand?

Marnie said...

Jeez Murphy, I grew up here, yet Laura has a far greater understanding of everything to do with Canadian politics, history and culture than I ever will.