On the Bay’s 350th, let’s remember department stores’ contributions to colonialism and white supremacy

Hudson’s Bay Company Store, Toronto, Canada, 2015. Image credit: bargainmoose (bargainmoose.ca).

In this post, Dr. Donica Belisle, author of Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada, and Associate Professor of History at the University of Regina, discusses the ways that Canadian retailers have profited from anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism. She argues that capitalist enterprise has long profited from colonialism and white supremacy in Canada.

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Surprisingly, “the Bay” – as the famous department store is now known – is being fairly quiet about it. Apart from launching a few specially-themed blankets, and partnering with a few companies for some new products, the firm is keeping a low profile. Perhaps this discretion is due to COVID-19. Given the ravages the disease has brought, it seems untimely to celebrate an anniversary.

Yet other forces are also at play. As Andrew Smith and Daniel Simeone note, the Bay now treads cautiously in its treatment of its past. Whereas earlier anniversaries – including the 250th one, celebrated in 1920 – were marked with fanfare, the Bay’s shareholders are today more careful about their company’s long history. Incorporated in 1670 and given a charter by the King of England to develop an exclusive trading monopoly with Indigenous nations in the Hudson’s Bay watershed, this company once claimed sovereignty over 40 per cent of the area now known as Canada. In 1869 it sold that unceded land to the Dominion of Canada. Separating itself into three divisions at the turn of the 20th century (fur, land, and retail), it next established a string of department stores.

When considering the Bay’s involvement in imperialism and colonization, it is often the Bay’s fur trading past that is most mentioned. Here, the Bay’s retail division is considered. For the first half of the 20th century, not only the Bay but such other major retailers as Eaton’s and Simpson’s were involved in the Canadian colonization of northwestern North America. By remembering this history, we can see that not only the state, but also major Canadian enterprises, have long been central to colonialism and white supremacy.

Eaton’s: A Canadian Empire

The Bay might be the oldest company in Canada, but it is Eaton’s that became Canada’s largest retailer. Established in 1869 in Toronto, by the 1910s this company had become the largest store in the British Empire and the eighth largest retailer in the world. Second only to the US company Sears in terms of sales revenue, Eaton’s achieved its size partially by capitalizing on the Canadian government’s decision to colonize the northwest. That is, Eaton’s was a physical store that served central Canada, but it was also a mail order empire whose products reached homes across the continent.

In this regard, Eaton’s profited directly from the federal government’s National Policy. Introduced by the federal Conservatives in 1878, the National Policy was a program for growth that entailed three strategies: settlement, railways, and tariffs. These initiatives, in turn, were intended to boost manufacturing, turn the western interior into an agricultural powerhouse, increase white settlement, and open up further trade. Racialized violence in the west – a process that James Daschuk calls “Clearing the Plains” – was central to this initiative. In 1871 it had started a treaty signing initiative with western Indigenous nations; this process lasted until 1921 by which time eleven treaties were signed. People that refused to acquiesce to government demands were treated severely. In 1885 the federal government went to war against the Métis in Saskatchewan, refusing to recognize their sovereignty or lands. After the Battle of Batoche, it hanged eight Indigenous men who had allegedly killed white settlers; it also hanged Métis leader Louis Riel, charging him with treason. Simultaneously, it forcibly moved over 5,000 Indigenous people to reserves, a genocidal act that included withholding food from starving people until they surrendered. Canada further authorized the move west of approximately two million people, including both immigrants and Canadians, between the years 1891 and 1921. Due to racialized policies, most western settlers were white.

Seizing the opportunity that this population growth represented, in the 1880s Timothy Eaton began a small catalogue business. By 1895, his catalogues were reaching the outermost homes of the nation. So popular were they that some said they were more plentiful than the Bible. Given away freely twice a year, the catalogues – together with those distributed by another Toronto department store, Simpson’s – provided hours of entertainment for rural readers. They also served, famously, as reading material and toilet paper in outhouses. In these and other ways, Toronto’s largest department stores brought the messages of mass consumer culture to millions. Due to the miracles of industrialization and rail transportation, they claimed, department stores brought prices down and made goods available to all. As Simpson’s put it in 1896, “Millions in merchandise. Cheapness unmeasured. They bring happiness.”

By the 1890s, Eaton’s catalogues were bringing mass consumer culture to millions. As this 1903-1904 catalogue proclaims, Eaton’s covered “Canada from sea to sea.” What this catalogue doesn’t show, but which is important to note, is that Eaton’s specifically sent goods produced in Ontario to homes across the country, including the newly colonized northwest. In this way Eaton’s used the channels of colonization to build white owned, central Canadian capital. Image credit.

So profitable was its western trade that in 1905, Eaton’s opened a branch store in Winnipeg. With 1,250 employees, it was the first major department store in western Canada. According to Eaton’s, this move was a triumph of white civilization. In choosing its Winnipeg location, Eaton’s had deliberately built some distance away from the Bay’s location at Fort Garry. Through this aggressive move, it channeled the shopping public away from the Bay and toward its own store. Eaton’s publicists, in turn, portrayed this shift as a triumphant erasure of fur trade life. According to the company’s own historian in 1919, Eaton’s Winnipeg store lured Winnipeg’s “retail traffic” away from historic Fort Garry, which had previously been the starting point of the “old [Indigenous] trail to the far West.”

Thus for Eaton’s, the opening of its Winnipeg store symbolized the removal of Indigenous people from modern urbanity. An early window display played up this theme. As the company’s 1919 history book noted, it took the “form of a Pageant of Western Progress, showing [Indigenous people], trappers, pioneer settlers, etc., etc., in their respective relations to the growth of the Prairie provinces.” This window pageant’s morale was obvious. Indigenous people belonged in the past. White modern commerce was the newest stage of evolution.

Eaton’s Winnipeg Store, circa 1920. Image credit: Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Whiteness Triumphant: The Bay

The Hudson’s Bay Company watched carefully as Eaton’s expanded. Already in 1890, the Bay had built a two-storey store in Calgary. Soon afterward, it built modest stores in Vancouver and Edmonton. But it was the arrival of Eaton’s in Winnipeg in 1905 that encouraged it to move more aggressively. Recognizing it could hold off no longer, the Bay finally built a major department store in that city, opening in 1911.

Despite being rivals, the Bay and Eaton’s agreed that department stores signalled white sophistication. In March 1921 the Bay’s corporate magazine, The Beaver, published an article called “From Pioneer Trading Post to Great Department Store” by Edmonton advertising manager Jack Prest. According to Prest, the Bay had always been a white haven. After it was built in 1798, Fort Edmonton had helped to “pacif[y]” the “savage [Indigenous] tribes.” Then, during the 1885 Resistance, it had become “a refuge from the frenzied [Indigenous people and Métis].” A few years later, it became a panoply of “past” and “present,” represented by Indigenous people “gaily bedecked and painted,” and, conversely, “townspeople” “[w]ell-dressed … in the season’s latest fashions.” As more whites arrived, however, “these customs gradually died out.” Between 1905 and 1919, the company added several additions to the store. By 1921, stated Prest, the HBC had provided Alberta with “a thoroughly modern department store worthy of the largest eastern cities.”

As this article indicates, Prest viewed white settlement as a force of modernization. He also saw racial violence, and particularly the replacement of Indigenous people by whites, as central to that process.

Cover image that headed The Beaver magazine’s earliest issues. Established in 1920, The Beaver was the Hudson’s Bay Company’s corporate magazine. It often contained white supremacist views and anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism, reflecting its writers’ views that white British civilization was the most highly evolved civilization on the planet. To see some of this imagery, visit the site where Canada’s History Society is currently hosting all of The Beaver’s digitized back issues. Image credit: “The Project Gutenbery Ebook of The Beaver, Volume 1, No. 10, July, 1921.”

Spaces of White Supremacy

From the first half of the 19th century into the latter half of the 20th, whites barred most Indigenous and Black people from attending white schools. During the First World War, the Canadian Expeditionary Forces prevented Black people from serving alongside whites; Indigenous and Métis people were permitted to do so but only within certain parameters. Beginning in the 1920s, whites barred Indigenous people from using white hospitals. Into the 1950s and beyond, whites also barred Black people from many commercial, residential, and recreational spaces. These included churches, restaurants, neighbourhoods, swimming pools, beaches, hotels, and movie theatres. Thus although Canada never enacted official segregation, it did have its own form of Jim Crow, as historian Sarah-Jane Mathieu has argued. Whites also barred Indigenous people from accessing white spaces. On reservations, a ‘pass system’ emerged whereby residents had to obtain permission from Indian Agents so as to leave their reserves. This system was illegal, but it was nonetheless widespread into the 1940s and beyond.

Given the lengths to which whites went to keep Indigenous and Black people out of their proximity, it is clear that Canada between the 1890s and 1950s (and afterwards) was a white supremacist country. Regarding department stores specifically, no policies have been found that explicitly banned Indigenous and Black people. And moreover, ample evidence indicates that Indigenous, Black, and South Asian people did patronize department stores. No doubt, their retailing dollars were welcomed, even if their presence was frequently not.

A review of mass retailers’ own literature reveals that staff members were often racist. In 1922, The Beaver included an article titled “English as She Is Wrote.” It featured “[a]n order written by an [Indigenous person] and received by an H.B.C. Post”:

As written:

1 pease 5 poin lard

20 poins bread frish bakin

1 pease tomatoes

As filled:

1 pail lard (5s)

20 lbs. breakfast bacon

1 can tomatoes.

Highlighting the discrepancy between the order and the translation, this article was meant to be humorous. In actual fact, though, it is racist. Rather than recognizing linguistic differences, the article suggests that those who did not write according to white convention were inferior. It also invited readers to mock an Indigenous person. Such acts reveal that the Bay’s white workers perceived Indigenous people as appropriate targets of scorn.

One of the most racist passages to ever appear in the Bay’s corporate literature was printed in 1935. Published in the staff magazine of the Bay’s Winnipeg store, it was a poem written by a male office employee who had had a conversation with a male Indigenous customer. According to the poem, the employee was frightened because the patron was “a full blooded ‘Injin.’” He was especially scared when the customer had apparently “stroked” his hair, though the customer had only done so to compare the poet’s short hair with his own “braids.” Nonetheless, the poet also found the man amusing because he wore “feathers.” Ultimately the poem warned all staff members to be wary of Indigenous shoppers. This was because, the author said, one never knew when a “duel between tomahawk and gun” might break out.

As this excerpt indicates, some whites were uncomfortable serving Indigenous people. And, they attempted to deal with that discomfort by resorting to mockery. They also attempted to deal with that discomfort by assuring themselves that while they were modern, Indigenous people were not. In these and other ways – including by writing and printing poems about their racial assumptions – they affirmed their own sense of racial superiority.

Black people, too, came in for derisive treatment. In 1926 The Beaver included a humour page featuring twelve jokes about Black people. Most of these jokes had been reprinted from other publications, including Life and American Legion Weekly. Four were unattributed. An unnamed contributor had therefore combed other papers looking for these selections; they had also perhaps made up some new jokes. All of their anecdotes feature Black people conversing with white people; all of them also portray Black people as unable to understand simple ideas. Many of the Black people, moreover, have names that commonly appeared in Blackface minstrelsy, including Rastus and Mose. All of the jokes are indeed similar to the dialogues that appeared on stages during Blackface performances. Printed together on one page, these jokes hence represent The Beaver’s own appreciation of Blackface. They also reveal that many of the Bay’s white staff during this era viewed Black people as ignorant, backwards, and appropriate targets of derision.

Eaton’s also treated Black people this way. In 1930, the company opened a new furniture store in downtown Toronto. In a write-up of its opening, Eaton’s publicists related that they had seen a Black woman and her child in attendance. According to historian Cynthia Wright, one flyer that described this event asked, breathlessly, ““Didn’t we see a precious little black pickaninny, about three years old, battered sailor cap cocked over one ear, stockings hanging down — o, while he dragged on the skirt of his mammy?” As this passage indicates, Eaton’s publicists were fascinated by the appearance of a Black woman and her child. Yet rather than portraying them as valued customers, they mocked them. By referring to them as “mammy” and “pickaninny,” they drew upon imagery that originated in the antebellum US South. Readers would have been familiar with these terms, for they too were common within Blackface performances. That Eaton’s saw fit to publish this passage indicates that its Toronto staff – similar to the Bay’s Beaver staff – viewed Black people through a Blackface lens. Black people, in this schema, were not modern shoppers. Instead, they were opportunities for humour and derision.

Eaton’s College Street Store, Toronto, circa 1940s. Built in 1930, Eaton’s College Street was an upscale furniture store. With an elegant restaurant and auditorium, it was a meeting and lunching spot for white, affluent women. Image credit: John Chuckman, “Toronto Nostalgia.”

Advertising White Modernity

A final theme to consider in the history of mass retailing’s racism is the ways by which retailers portrayed modern Canadian modernity as specifically white. During the first half of the 20th century, Canadian department stores were among the largest advertisers in the country. Their publicity appeared daily in most national newspapers; it also appeared weekly in most local ones. More than this, department stores’ leaflets, brochures, magazines, books, and catalogues were themselves a form of advertising. Along with missives created by such manufacturers as Ford and General Motors, department stores’ sales messaging saturated the Canadian landscape during this time.

All of this publicity varied, but consistent throughout department stores’ messaging was the notion that only white people could be consumers. In advertisement after advertisement, department stores portrayed their customers as happy white Canadians. There is not enough space in this article to survey all of this advertising, though readers are invited to peruse Chapters Two and Three of my book, Retail Nation, for further exploration of this theme. Here, let us just note that the covers of Eaton’s catalogues serve as particularly illustrative examples. From the early 1900s until well into the 1950s and beyond, these covers featured smiling white people in various settings of contented domesticity. Its Toronto catalogue’s 1904 Christmas cover, for example, shows four white children happily opening presents (Figure 1). Similarly, a 1926 Spring and Summer cover, also from Toronto, showed two white women happily welcome their husband home; a child runs between them, arms laden with parcels.

Eaton’s Toronto Christmas Catalogue cover, 1904. Wikimedia Commons.

According to historian Cheryl Thompson, it was not until late in the 20th century when white owned Canadian beauty retailers began to include images of Black consumers within their publicity. Such practices were consistent with Canadian advertising more generally. Throughout 20th century Canada, most major advertisers equated consumption with whiteness. Even when they recognized – as did department stores – that customers came from a variety of racialized backgrounds, it was still seen as best practice to portray consumers within advertising as white. This was because most advertisers were themselves invested in the conflation of whiteness with modernity. That is, since whites perceived Indigenous and Black people as primitive, they had difficulty imagining them consumers. As such, they also had difficulty imagining them as valuable, contributing members of the modern Canadian nation.

Holding Capital Accountable

In recounting these specific instances of colonialism and racism, this article has only scratched the surface of how Canadian retail has both profited from and worked to uphold colonialism and white supremacy. That said, it is hoped that it has made certain themes apparent. Between 1670 and 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company was an imperial power. After 1869, the Canadian state began its own program of western colonization. After 1885, when the transcontinental railway made it possible to ship goods across the continent, retailers developed capitalist forms of empire. By the 1910s, Eaton’s in particular had parlayed its profits from western expansion into success, becoming – after Sears – the second largest retailer in North America.

Yet it was not only through sales that department stores perpetuated colonialism. Through their racist treatment of Indigenous and Black shoppers, Eaton’s and the Bay furthered the idea that white people were the rightful inheritors of colonization. They also perpetuated the notion that colonization was akin to modernization. That is, by portraying department stores as agents of white modernity, Eaton’s and the Bay suggested that both Indigenous and Black people could never become modern consumers. And, since consumption was central to modern Canadian life, neither could they become modern Canadians.

As we reflect on the Bay’s presence in northern North America throughout the past 350 years, it is clear that all three of its divisions – fur, land, and retail – have been enormously influential. It is also clear that its retail division demands further study. The Bay’s involvement in western Canadian colonization did not end with the sale of its stolen lands to the Canadian state in 1869. Rather, after that sale it embarked on new forms of oppression. By directing attention to not only the Bay’s but other mass retailers’ racist pasts, we can see that 20th century Canadian capital has both profited from, and sought to extend, white supremacy in this country.

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