the company that became a country

When I first looked into Canadian history, I was amazed to learn how much of the land was formerly owned by the Hudson's Bay Company. Because the 336-year-old company is about to pass out of Canadian control, bought by US gazillionaire Jerry Zucker, there is some concern about what will happen to its vast repository of Canadian history.

Much of the company's documents and artifacts are already housed in the official archives of Manitoba and in the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. But some objects of great historical value are still owned by HBC. In addition, there's the question of continued funding for the Hudson's Bay Company History Foundation, and the two HBC heritage museums.

From yesterday's Globe And Mail:
When a private company changes hands, that's business news. When a private company is also a national icon and repository for more than three centuries of papers, artifacts and art related to Canada's very genesis, it's news for the history books, and also for the policy-makers watching over national heritage.

The issue arises because Jerry Zucker, the South Carolina financier, is taking over Canada's Hudson's Bay Co. with a $15.25-a-share offer worth $1.1-billion. "It's the only company that became a country," notes Peter C. Newman, author of Empire of the Bay. And with the transfer of the company could go artifacts and art that are part of this country's DNA.

Founded in 1670 by a stroke of Charles II's royal pen, HBC was first known as the Company of Adventurers -- greedy and daring men given a charter to be "true Lordes and Proprietors" of all the lands whose rivers drained into Hudson Bay. At its early 19th-century peak, that definition encompassed 1.5-million square miles. An area of woods, barrens, prairies and tundra vaster than the Holy Roman Empire, it was traversed by trappers and mappers bringing furs and reports in to company men, who, half-mad with cold and isolation, kept and sent meticulous records back to London.

"Talk to any natural scientist or historian," says Newman. "These people in their little outposts across the North are one of the only records of early Canada -- geography, geology, social history, of illnesses, weather, mosquitoes, everything."

In 1994, HBC donated many of its treasures to the public. An estimated $49-million worth of documents went to the Provincial Archives of Manitoba; meanwhile, objects (carvings, early company kettles, guns and a pair of Midewiwien, Ojibwa religious scrolls -- a collection whose value is as much as $10-million) were given to the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. And HBC established a foundation to continue to help underwrite the housing and preservation of its gift -- a model of how corporations should treat their own legacies.

But important material is still owned by HBC, and its fate is what is now of interest.
The Globe And Mail story quotes the new HBC ownership as being "very sensitive to the historical importance of the material" and "pledged to honour the undertakings with the Manitoba Museum." Like, what else are they going to say? Still, it's good to know it's being talked about, and these pledges, for whatever they're worth, are being made.


James Redekop said...

Personally, I'd prefer to see the historical materials handed over to the National Archives... Unfortunately, phrases like "very sensitive to the historical importance of the material" don't actually mean anything. They say nothing about intentions, and pledge nothing about actions. They reek of marketing and public relations, two of the greatest banes on modern culture.

Wrye said...

I don't think the Manitoba vs. National Archives make much difference, so long as there's some kind of funding commitment at whatever level--Archives don't magically grow space and staff, sadly.

I'm just glad there's some general awareness of the issue and the public is aware of what's at stake--in some greebly, rudimentary way.

theduckthief said...

I have to say, I was absolutely disgusted with the fact that the HBC was sold off. I mean, if it hadn't been here, Canada probably wouldn't be here.

And there were all these promises that it won't become any less Canadian. Hello, it's a company that's older than the US and has been bought by an American bazillionaire. Of course it's not going to be Canadian anymore. I also hate the fact that he's using the name Maple Leaf Heritage Investments. Yuch.

Even if he can make the company profitable again, I still wouldn't be happy with the deal. I mean, would Americans like it if a Canadian billionaire bought and owned Wrigley Field or any other American icon?

laura k said...

I mean, would Americans like it if a Canadian billionaire bought and owned Wrigley Field or any other American icon?

I don't think most people would care. It's not as if the city of Chicago owns the cubs - a private company does. Private ownership is private ownership. As long as the new ownership preserved the Park, I don't think the nationality of the owner would matter.

It's not as if the Canadian people owned HBC. It's a publicly traded company, it's owned by the shareholders.

But was this a hostile takeover? Isn't HBC as much an agent in this as Jerry Zucker?