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A Manitoba government source says the six-storey former The Bay store in downtown Winnipeg is to be transferred to Indigenous leadership and will be used partly for affordable housing.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

The Hudson’s Bay Co. is gifting one of its grandest buildings to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization – a group representing 34 Manitoba First Nations – in a transfer of assets that’s being dubbed a model of economic reconciliation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to join First Nations leaders and company representatives on Friday to announce the transaction, placing Winnipeg’s 600,000-square-foot Hudson’s Bay building under First Nations ownership.

The ornate Beaux Arts monolith, which takes up the better part of a downtown city block, will be converted into a multiuse space featuring 300 housing units, two restaurants, a health facility, child-care centre, museum and art gallery.

“This is a shift in our history,” said Jerry Daniels, Grand Chief of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO), which represents Anishinaabe and Dakota communities with a total population of 81,000 people. “We’re seeing a very significant and visible transition that really puts into action what has been referred to as economic reconciliation.”

North America’s oldest company has long puzzled over the fate of the iconic six-storey structure. It was the largest reinforced concrete building in the country at the time of its 1926 opening. With a dozen elevators and 2,000 staff members, it was a city unto itself, containing its own post office, library and orchestra.

With the opening of nearby malls in the 1960s and 1970s, foot traffic began to decline, and portions of the building were subleased, or left vacant. The Hudson’s Bay footprint within the property shrank steadily until the building closed entirely in November, 2020.

“We kept the store open as long as we could,” said Richard Baker, governor and executive chairman of Hudson’s Bay Co. “But eventually, there just wasn’t the traffic and the business to run a proper today store there.”

The company has entertained half a dozen proposals to redevelop the building as residential, commercial and university space.

“I personally worked on every one of the proposals and opportunities that were offered to us for this property, and none of them felt right,” Mr. Baker said. “When the [SCO] came to New York and met with me and had a visionary proposal of how this building could help change their community, that was the signal I’d been waiting for.”

It remains unclear how much money each level of government will contribute toward upgrading the building. The project, called Wehwehneg Bahgahkinahgohn (”it is visible”), proposes extensive environmental retrofits that would reduce the building’s energy consumption by 35 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions by 81 per cent.

A planned main floor atrium would create a public space bathed in natural light. One restaurant is pegged as a café offering “a fresh take on First Nations’ cuisine,” according to a news release. The other would be a resurrected Paddlewheel Restaurant, a beloved sixth-floor cafeteria that closed in 2013.

In a 2019 appraisal, Cushman & Wakefield pegged the value of the building at $0, citing extensive renovation requirements. Mr. Baker said it was an obvious undervaluation based on a tenantless building.

“It wasn’t worth zero,” he said. “We’re very proud of the gifts and the impact that we’re going to make in the community.”

Now U.S.-owned, the Hudson’s Bay Co. launched 352 years ago by a royal charter that granted the company a trading monopoly over the vast region draining into Hudson Bay. It relied on an extensive network of Indigenous traders and guides to produce huge profits.

“As Canada’s oldest company, we have a responsibility to acknowledge our colonial history and to take meaningful action and reconciliation with Indigenous communities,” Mr. Baker said. “So we’re here, we’re listening, we’re participating.”

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