The Fur Trade
His Highness Prince Rupert by Studio of Anthony van Dyck, n.d.
Oil on canvas
Two centuries before Confederation a pair of resourceful Frenchmen named
Radisson and des Groseilliers
discovered a wealth of fur in the interior of the continent - north and west of
the Great Lakes - accessible via the great inland sea that is Hudson Bay. Despite their success
French and American interests would not back them. It took the vision and connections of
Prince Rupert, cousin of
King Charles II, to acquire the
Royal Charter which, in May, 1670 granted
the lands of the Hudson Bay watershed to "the Governor and
Company of Adventurers of England
trading into Hudson Bay."
Its first century of operation found Hbc firmly ensconced in a few forts and posts around
the shores of James and Hudson Bays. Natives brought furs annually to these locations to barter
for manufactured goods such as knives, kettles, beads, needles, and blankets. By the late 18th c.
competition forced Hbc to expand into the interior. A string of posts grew up along the great
river networks of the west foreshadowing the modern cities that would succeed them: Winnipeg,
In 1821 Hbc merged with its most successful rival, the
North West Company based in Montreal.
The resulting commercial enterprise now spanned the continent - all the way to the Pacific Northwest
(modern-day Oregon, Washington and British Columbia) and the North (Alaska, the Yukon,
Northwest Territories and Nunavut). The merger also set the pattern of the Company's growth,
being the first of a series of notable acquisitions.
The Rise of Retail
Hbc Klondike gold rush era advertisement
HBCA D.26/34 fo. 21d
By the end of the 19th c. changing fashion tastes contributed to the fur trade losing
importance. Western settlement and the Gold Rush quickly introduced a new type of client
to Hbc - one that shopped with cash and not with skins. With the Deed of Surrender in 1870
between Hbc and Canada, Hbc yielded sovereignty over its traditional territories to the
new country. The retail era had begun. The Company's focus began to shift as it
concentrated on transforming trading posts into saleshops, stocked with a wider variety
of goods than ever before.
In 1912, following advice from one of its directors who was with Harrods department
store in London, Hbc began an aggressive modernization program. The resulting "original
six" Hudson's Bay Company department stores, in Victoria,
Winnipeg, are the legacy of this period.
Retail expansion across the country would finally be achieved by a series of strategic
acquisitions: Cairns (Saskatoon: 1921),
Morgan's (Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto: 1960) and
Freiman's (Ottawa: 1972 ).
The growth of retail spurred Hbc into a wide variety of commercial pursuits.
canned salmon, coffee, tea and tobacco were all lines that supplemented traditional fur
and retail and helped to establish a thriving wholesale business. Large holdings of land
negotiated as part of the Deed of Surrender took the Company into real estate. The sale
of homesteads to newly-arrived settlers would later evolve into a full-scale interest
in commercial property holdings and development. Shipping and natural resources,
particularly oil and gas, were other important sidelines.
Focus on Retail
Hbc store, Temagami, Ontario, Bear Island, 1941
In 1970, coincident with its 300th anniversary, Hbc became a Canadian corporation.
The pace of retail acquisition increased with takeovers of
Simpsons (1978), and Robinson's (1979). However, the economic downturn of the 1980s
left the Company with major debt and caused Hbc to rethink its priorities and,
like many other firms, return to its core business. Non-strategic business assets
such as the Fur Trade, Wholesale and Northern Stores departments were sold in 1987
as was the Company's last natural resources holding, Roxy Petroleum. Strategic expansion
to strengthen its share of the market continued with the acquisition of Towers/Bonimart
(1990), Woodward's (1993), and K-Mart Canada (1998).
Since then Hbc has explored new shopping channels and ways of doing business. Club Z,
the Company's first customer loyalty program, was launched in 1986. In 2001 it was
superseded by Hbc Rewards. Specialty arrived with the opening of Home Outfitters in 1999.
Online shopping was introduced with the launch of hbc.com in 2000. And the off-price
segment of the market was covered by Designer Depot / Style Depot, which operated from
2004 - 2008. In 2003 Hbc Signature, a private brand inspired by the Company's unique
heritage, was introduced. And in 2005 Hbc was chosen Premier National Partner of the
Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
The partnership, which runs from 2005 until 2012, makes Hbc the Official Department Store
Sponsor and General Merchandise Department Store Operator in Canada.
The 21st century finds Hbc well into its fourth century of retailing in Canada.
Its major retail channels - the Bay, Zellers, Home Outfitters, and Fields - together
provide more than two-thirds of the retail needs of Canadians. Proof positive, if any
were needed, of the aptness of Hbc's proud claim:
Canada's Merchants Since 1670.