The Arts

Treasures from the Empire of the Bay

The rich legacy of the Hudson’s Bay Co. opens a new window on 300 years of Canadian history

Brian Bethune May 8 2000
The Arts

Treasures from the Empire of the Bay

The rich legacy of the Hudson’s Bay Co. opens a new window on 300 years of Canadian history

Brian Bethune May 8 2000

Treasures from the Empire of the Bay

The Arts

The rich legacy of the Hudson’s Bay Co. opens a new window on 300 years of Canadian history

To a remarkable degree, the history behind the artifacts is the history of Northern and Western Canada over the past three centuries. The pieces range from relics of the ill-fated Franklin expedition to stunning examples of aboriginal artistic expression. Now in the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature in Winnipeg, the artifacts are all part of the legacy of the worlds oldest commercial enterprise, the Hudson’s Bay Co. Established in 1670 by King Charles II, in the days of its glory the firm’s land grant covered almost a twelfth of the Earth’s land surface, and its outposts extended from the Arctic to Hawaii. The company eventually developed an imperial sense of obligation to match its imperial ambitions, and for its 250th birthday in 1920 it hired former fur trader Francis Wilson to acquire “those things which have real meaning in connection with the life of the company’s officers, clerks and servants, also of the pioneer settlers and the natives.”

In 1994, the Bay gave this treasure trove— more than 10,000 objects in all—to the Manitoba museum along with $2.7 million to house d care for it. On May 2, the firm’s 330th niversary, the museum will formally open the udson’s Bay Company Gallery, providing a new window through which Canadians can see their history. “The story of Western Canada begins with the First Nations,” says gallery curator Katherine Pettipas. “But the HBC’s history is largely identical to the history of European exploration and white-native relations in the West.” One of the main artifacts Pettipas wants visitors to view

through that window is a 13-m York boat, the last surviving example of the fur trade’s workhorse vessel. Pettipas admires that boat, primarily because it is so suggestive of “the actual lives of company employees,” the curator says, as she describes the arduous task of portaging the heavy vessel over log rollers. But this particular York boat, she adds, also symbolizes the HBC’s long-standing commitment to preserving the past.

The Bay commissioned it in 1920 as part of its 250th birthday celebrations. Its elderly builder, trained in the old ways, crafted the boat in authentic mid-19th-century style. If the Bay had delayed its history project another 10 years, Pettipas argues, it would likely have been too late to have one built. The boat was put into service in northern Manitoba for almost a decade, after which it was kept outdoors at Lower Fort Garry near Winnipeg. “We had to decide between leaving it to the elements or taking up a huge amount of exhibit space,” the curator says. “So we took it apart board by board over four months, reassembled it on its side—just as voyageurs ashore would have propped it up—and everything has worked out fine.”

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Pettipas’s other favourite pieces include Swiss artist Peter Rindisbacher’s early 19th-century watercolours and exquisite examples of native craftsmanship from that era—Bella Coola hats and prized Chilkat ceremonial blankets among them. Many of those artifacts, like a cradle board panel from the Red Rver area—made of dyed porcupine quills, trade cloth, ribbons and yarn—show an intricate blend of native and white cultures. “We have such a rich history,” the curator asserts. “It saddens me that Canadians can’t grasp it through images as well as they should. But the Hudson’s Bay Co. already has a romantic mystique, and I think the gallery will play a major role in bringing our history alive.”

Brian Bethune