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A Hudson's Bay Co. store sign is shown in Toronto on July 29, 2013.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Stephen Bown’s latest book is The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire.

This year, shopping for the holidays is fraught with a distinct sense of discomfort, haste or perhaps even fear – whatever it is, it is neither as social nor as fun as in the past. Diminished crowds, wearing masks, warily navigate around each other, careful not to come too close. In the current pandemic, where crowds are something to be avoided like, well, the plague, shoppers have migrated – or have been ordered – away from traditional independent bricks-and-mortar retail outlets and once-iconic destination stores such as the Hudson’s Bay Company. Many people are shopping from their homes, on computers.

After 350 years in business, the Hudson’s Bay Company is once again struggling to adapt to an unforeseen shift in consumer habits, unable or unwilling to make its rent payments for most of its stores. Once the only general store for much of northern North America, it has now been declared unessential. Could this be the final chapter in one of the world’s most storied enterprises?

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A look inside HBC’s archives on its 350th anniversary

HBC has had to reinvent itself multiple times over the centuries, weathering upheavals to business practices as profound as the current crisis. Warfare was a problem between 1670 and 1870, when the company held a monopoly on trade covering much of modern Canada, but it was infectious disease that most profoundly affected the world in which the company operated. It disrupted the company’s operations and the economies of Indigenous peoples, just as our current pandemic has disrupted economic behaviour now.

The fur trade brought smallpox, influenza and other “great colds” to remote Indigenous communities, starting in the 18th century, which wreaked enormous cultural and economic damage. Although the company trading posts along Hudson Bay weren’t the direct sources of these epidemics (the sailing time from London was usually too long for disease to survive among the crew, and most diseases spread inland from the population centres of Quebec, Montreal and Boston), it was the company’s traders and their Indigenous wives and children, and Indigenous trading partners more broadly, who bore the brunt of the damage. After one epidemic in the early 18th century, trader Anthony Beale wrote in Fort Albany, in what is now northeastern Ontario, that the “country is very much altered to what it was formerly for we have had many sick this winter.”

But it was the smallpox epidemic of 1780-82, which came north from Mexico, that had the most profound impact on the company’s operations and the social and commercial lives of its employees, contractors and customers.

This new disease proved devastating to communities that had never seen it before, and it left a legacy of orphans, widows and men who had lost all or most of their family. In addition to the personal losses, there was a loss of community throughout entire regions as populations declined and a generalized terror and feeling of powerlessness remained. The political and cultural upheaval can hardly be conceived. In some instances, the disease killed up to 80 per cent of people in a region, while leaving an adjacent band unscathed. Owing to the nature of the fur trade, in which ceremony and mutual obligation were key aspects of building trust and relationships, the deaths in the countryside were not nameless and unknown people – rather they were long-standing acquaintances, business associates, friends and perhaps even extended family.

No one understood disease in that era: European physicians were still prescribing bloodletting in an attempt to balance the four bodily humours and germ theory was a radical new concept. The first vaccination (by Edward Jenner) wasn’t developed until the late 1790s, and it was decades before the Hudson’s Bay Company could distribute a crude smallpox vaccine to its outposts. Although beneficial to those who received it, its reach was largely limited to peoples who regularly frequented the trading posts. Perhaps the recent fear and societal disruption over our current pandemic will allow us to be more sympathetic to past societies who faced far deadlier and less understood outbreaks during their time.

During the epidemic years – which persisted throughout the 19th century – merely doing business was dangerous. There wasn’t much anyone could do, given the rudimentary knowledge about disease and the relative isolation of the outposts and limited resources, but in at least one instance the local chief factor, or manager, tried to direct people away from congregating at York Factory, then the company’s pre-eminent outpost, by sending traders out to meet them in a remote location. “Keep a strict look out,” instructed Matthew Cocking, “that none of the Home Guards [Cree] come to the factory but keep at a proper distance. ... Should you find the disorder has attacked any of them, do all in your power for their preservation.”

In addition to the personal toll it took on the lives of the European traders, their families and the Indigenous populations, disease required the company to reinvent itself to overcome disruption to customary practices and business operations. The depopulation caused by epidemics propelled it to embark on a radical new strategy: Instead of relying on Cree traders and agents, the company sought out new markets directly and engaged in relationships with multiple Indigenous peoples. It moved inland, along the river systems heading south and west from Hudson Bay, to build smaller trading posts closer to the more dispersed peoples who were its suppliers and customers. This plan bypassed the Cree commercial hegemony that had prevailed for generations, where predominantly Cree “trading captains” purchased furs inland as far away as the Rocky Mountains and brought them to Hudson Bay, in effect using the company as a wholesale distributor while managing the retail trade themselves.

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Almost 250 years ago, the disruption caused by disease led the company away from the stable business plan that had guided it for more than a century, and toward the exploration of the culturally and geographically unknown continent. Not only did the smallpox epidemic of the early 1780s devastate Indigenous society in western North America, from Mexico to the Rocky Mountains and the subartic, but it changed the direction of history, radically transforming the prevailing commercial networks and setting in motion the company’s exploration of what is now central and Western Canada.

Once driven to expand operations to maintain its market, the Hudson’s Bay Company is now asking the courts to determine a fair and reasonable sharing of the financial burden of the pandemic lockdowns between retailers and landlords and perhaps within society generally. Many smaller independent retail outlets are no doubt pondering the same question. Only time will reveal how the current pandemic will transform the company – and our society and culture more broadly.

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