After 350 years the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) is in dire straits. What we are witnessing is the inglorious decline of the first international trading company in the history of North America, which is responsible for hundreds of years of brutal exploitation. It is time we recall the true legacy of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The Hudson’s Bay Company: a blood stained history
The year 2020 marks the 350th anniversary of the founding of the HBC. The company is celebrating its birthday by shrouding itself in the well-worn platitudes of nationalist and colonial nostalgia. The magazine Canada’s History was founded by the HBC in 1920 and continues to be its corporate mouthpiece today – its latest edition being dedicated to a whitewashed history of the HBC.
Let’s first hear what the HBC has to say about its history. In an article entitled “Celebrating the HBC’s Legacy” we read:
Today most Canadians are familiar with Hudson’s Bay Company as a department store. But in the context of the history of Canada, HBC is so much more.
No corporation has had a greater impact on Canada’s development than HBC. From the time it was founded in 1670 as a Company of Adventurers “trading into Hudson Bay,” the history of HBC has been entwined with the history of Canada.
Its trading interests put it at the forefront of exploration, with traders such as Samuel Hearne, John Rae and David Thompson charting new frontiers. Its traders were usually the first Europeans with whom First Nations made contact. And its trading posts effectively served as local governing bodies. They even provided health care, by, for example, vaccinating First Nations against smallpox.
Based on the illustration given above, one would have the impression of the HBC being a kind-hearted saviour bringing civilization, wealth, and healthcare (!) to the untamed wilds of North America. Needless to say, this is a complete falsification of the worst sort. Not only was the HBC the main propagator of colonial expansion, but was directly involved in the Indigenous genocide, and was the earliest strikebreaker on the continent. To set the record straight requires a brief review of the historical facts.
The HBC was established as a royal monopoly in 1670, which soon developed the fur trade in Hudson’s Bay and what would be known as Rupert’s Land (named after King Charles II’s nephew). The HBC fought the French over dominance of the fur trade and established a monopoly in 1713, but intense competition existed both further South and on the West coast until the collusion of the Northwest Company and the HBC in 1821. Until 1869 the HBC was in control of essentially all commercial hubs in the Canadian countryside, giving the HBC a virtual monopoly on all sorts of raw materials, furs, and foodstuffs. The HBC was the principal arm of British imperialism and colonial expansion in what is now known as Canada.
From its first beginnings in North America, the HBC pulled Indigenous communities into the web of capitalist economy. Being predominantly a trading company, the HBC was dependent on Indigenous labour to fill its ships headed to European markets. Fur trappers were predominantly Indigenous or Métis (but also French, Scotish and others), and worked for the HBC not as partners but as exploited workers. Even as late as the 1920s it was noted in an interview with Sir Fredrick Banting that: “For over $100,000 of fox skins, he estimated that the Eskimos had not received $5,000 worth of goods.” Competition between Indigenous communities literally tore apart traditional relationships and ways of life in the search for furs. The HBC traded alcohol, industrial goods and medicine for furs and raw materials that were sent back to Europe in order to fuel the industrialization of England. In fact, capitalism in England would have been significantly delayed if not for cheap Indigenous labour in Canada. Exploitation of Indigenous labour also formed the basis of the primitive accumulation of capital necessary for the establishment of the Canadian bourgeoisie.
This exploitative relationship eventually broke out in open class struggle between the HBC and its workers. In particular, in 1799 a strike took place at Cumberland House in Saskatchewan where Métis, Indigenous, Scottish and French workers collectively demanded better pay. The HBC refused their demands and fired all the strikers. This resulted in the workers leaving the HBC for its rival Northwest Company. The first serious labour disputes were bound up with the HBC, and even culminated in a small rebellion in 1816.
The HBC was given the charter for fishing and hunting rights throughout Rupert’s Land by Charles II in 1670, but needless to say these rights were never Charles’ to give. The foundation of Canada coincided with the historic theft of indigenous land which the HBC sold to the Government of Canada for 300,000 pounds, of which indigenous people never saw a penny. This happened without the slightest pretext to include the wishes of the people living within this territory. This was the context of the Red River Rebellion in 1869.
Today, the HBC is remembered in Indigenous communities as the bringer of disease, alcohol, violence, debt and the disintegration of the traditional society that existed before the introduction of capitalism. In a separate report to the Department of the Interior in 1927, Banting stated that:
“…infant mortality was high because of the undernourishment of the mother before birth… [that] white man’s food leads to decay of native teeth… Tuberculosis has commenced. Saw several cases at Godhavn, Etah, Port Burwell, Arctic Bay… An epidemic resembling influenza killed a considerable proportion of [the] population at Port Burwell… [and that] the gravest danger faces the Eskimo in his transfer from a race-long hunter to a dependent trapper. White flour, sea-biscuits, tea and tobacco do not provide sufficient fuel to warm and nourish him…”
To keep profits coming, the liquidation of Indigenous ways of life and the transformation of Indigenous trappers into exploited workers was paramount. Among other things, alcohol, firearms, and textiles were used to tie entire communities to the fur trade through alcohol addiction, conflicts between communities (where the only guns came from the HBC) and reliance on “cheap whiteman’s goods”. The Bay was the acid that melted all age-old traditions and replaced them with the soulless embrace of European capitalism.
From the 1870s onward the HBC became obsessed with land speculation and oil production in the early 20th century. This proved lucrative, and the HBC would become the sixth largest oil producer in the world by 1967! However, a turn towards commercial department stores has seen a slow decline in relative profits compared to the riches made in the previous centuries.
“All this is old history!” one might say. But this is not true at all. The HBC proved to be a strike-breaker once again as recently as 2002 when over 800 workers went on strike in Ontario after the HBC wanted to introduce “an enhanced pay for performance program” after profits plummeted by 65 per cent. The bosses shipped in temporary workers to the striking stores and encouraged workers to cross the picket line. This is the legacy of the HBC just as much as the 1799 strike, the spread of tuberculosis, or the seizure of Indigenous land that is still exploited by Canadian capitalists – this brutal, racist, and exploitative legacy of the HBC still haunts the Canadian working class and Indigenous communities to this very day.
The end of HBC… the end of capitalism
In the context of today’s economic crisis, it is hardly difficult to imagine why a semi-luxury department store like the HBC is in the doldrums. According to Craig Patterson, the HBC’s main obstacle is “ensuring that financially it’s able to maintain itself and not file for creditor protection” – in other words they are headed for the rocks. However, this trouble has not come from out of the blue and the company has been having problems for quite some time. Due to fierce competition from Amazon and others, in the third quarter of 2019 the HBC had a net loss of $226 million, which was up from $161 million a year previous. This was reflected in the company’s U-turn back to private trading after its miserable performance on the Canadian stock exchange. This was all before the economic crisis of this year
On how the HBC will survive the slump, The Bay only gives evasive answers: “As Hudson’s Bay has worked to adjust operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also accelerated its strategy to elevate the brand and improve performance…” and that “we’ll see a company that comes back with 30 to 40 stores,” from today’s 89 stores inside Canada. As always, the HBC is going to make the working class pay through closures and layoffs.
Yet these measures are not an assurance of HBC’s survival. The HBC wants to mimic “high-end destination department stores like Harrods in London, Galeries Lafayette in Paris, or Isetan and Takashimaya in Japan…” The current slump is not likely to go away anytime soon – mass unemployment is becoming a major factor in Canadian society, which means people will hardly be able to pay for rent and food, let alone luxury clothes and unnecessary accessories from The Bay. There is a very real possibility that The Bay is on its way to the morgue if the crisis lasts long enough.
However, the terminal decline of the HBC is emblematic of the world capitalist crisis. The current crisis – economic and epidemiological – is laying bare the inability of capitalism to advance society, or even keep us from sliding backwards. This is because both the HBC and capitalism have fulfilled their historical roles long in the past, building up modern industry and an international division of labour – but capitalism is now holding back further development of society. It is only fitting that the HBC – that company which was so vital in nourishing capitalism in its infancy – is facing such a humiliating decline in the epoch of capitalism’s death.
Like the HBC, capitalism was birthed out of the blood, sweat and tears of the working class. Yet out of all this, the productive forces created by capitalism over the last few hundred years have prepared the material foundation on which we can build socialism. As Marx wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, “the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism.” From the horrors of colonialism, slavery and genocide, capitalism has laid the groundwork for a beautiful transformation of society where exploitation and oppression will be thrown into the rubbish bin of history, alongside the blood stained banner of the Hudson Bay Company.