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A Hudson’s Bay employee handles point blankets at their downtown Toronto store on Sept. 29.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The Hudson’s Bay point blanket with its instantly recognizable stripes has a long history, stretching back generations before this land was called Canada. While it has been marketed over the years as a stylish emblem of nostalgic Canadiana, it is also a fraught symbol of the role the company played in colonization, and the resulting suffering among Indigenous communities. Now, Hudson’s Bay Co. is redirecting the profits from the sale of those blankets toward Indigenous-led initiatives.

On Friday, the Hudson’s Bay Foundation announced a partnership with the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund to launch a fund called “Oshki Wupoowane,” which means “a new blanket” in the Ojibwe language. The fund will channel all of the gross profits from the Bay blankets – thousands of which are still sold annually, at prices from $325 to $550 a pop – toward grants that will be administered by the Downie Wenjack Fund, for initiatives focused on Indigenous cultural, artistic and educational activities.

“Obviously the blanket has a very complex history within Indigenous communities in Canada. It is symbolic of many things, most closely related to genocide and smallpox,” said Sarah Midanik, DWF’s president and chief executive officer, who is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta. “One of the things that’s really important in reconciliation, is looking toward the future while acknowledging the past. This partnership provided a very unique opportunity to both acknowledge the Bay’s role in the colonization of Canada, but also tell the true history of the blanket and to have it take on a new meaning.”

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According to the Bay, sales of the blankets are expected to generate roughly $2-million toward the new fund this year. “We genuinely believe that, with that kind of communication and stakeholder involvement, we can grow that figure exponentially over the coming years,” said Iain Nairn, the Bay’s president and CEO. The company is planning to ask its supplier to ramp up production of the blankets, which currently has a capacity of roughly 8,500 a year. The Hudson’s Bay Foundation is also making a $1-million donation to the blanket fund.

Shoppers who want to support the fund, however, should be aware that not all blankets with the Bay stripes are point blankets – and profits from other products, such as the retailer’s “caribou multistripe throw,” as well as striped cotton, cashmere or fleece blankets, still go to the Bay. According to the company, products will be clearly labelled so that customers know the difference. (Point blankets also come in other colours and designs, some of which predate the Bay’s late-18th-century multistripe design.)

The point blankets date back to the era when Canada’s oldest retailer was still in the fur business. With the 1670 Royal Charter, King Charles II granted the company a trading monopoly over a swath of land covering more than 40 per cent of modern Canada and parts of what is now the U.S. Indigenous hunters, translators and guides were crucial to HBC’s growth and success. For some Indigenous people, first contact with Europeans came in the form of Hudson’s Bay traders. That also meant contact with diseases, such as smallpox, to which they had no immunity.

“There’s a group of newcomers who show up and very soon after – in the case of virgin soil epidemics – a huge percentage of the population dies,” said James Daschuk, a historian at the University of Regina whose research focuses partly on the spread of disease during the development of Western Canada. The blankets that the traders used as currency – the “point” refers to sewn lines that indicated their size, and therefore value – became inextricably linked to disease in the oral histories of some of those communities.

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While Prof. Daschuk said he has found no documented evidence that HBC traders intentionally used blankets to spread disease among Indigenous people, the idea of using smallpox-laced blankets for biological warfare was promoted in the 18th century by Jeffery Amherst, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America.

The blanket’s legacy is complicated. In a 2017 article for Canadian Art magazine, Métis author Chelsea Vowel wrote that the blankets are “highly prized” in some communities in the Prairies, and are used as gifts and in ceremonies to honour others. “Our relationship with these blankets stretches back many generations, and involves a history that is fraught with complex dynamics and resistance to colonial encroachment, none of which is true of the môniyâw [white person] in his bougie HBC sweater,” she wrote.

The new fund is not the first initiative Hudson’s Bay has launched this year in the name of economic reconciliation. In April, the company announced that it would give its flagship building in downtown Winnipeg to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, a group representing 34 Manitoba First Nations. There is more to come, Mr. Nairn said.

DWF will begin accepting applications for the Oshki Wupoowane grants in early 2023. DWF’s Ms. Midanik pointed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 92nd call to action, which provides what she called a “roadmap” for corporate Canada to engage in reconciliation.

“This isn’t a trend or a fleeting social interest,” she said. “This is the work that we have to do to build a stronger, more equitable Canada.”

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