Narrator: The Hudson's Bay Company. Few corporations are as rich in history and none have had a greater impact on Canada's development. Its records are an invaluable resource.
Ian Wilson: The Hudson's Bay Company archives are, frankly, the national archives for a major part of Canada for a period of about 200 years, from 1670, the date of the Charter, through to the time they surrendered the Charter rights to the Crown in 1870. This is a national archives because they held the full powers of the Crown, not just for trading, but for patenting land, for administering justice, for declaring war, they held the full rights of the Crown.
Narrator: When the company transferred its head office to Canada from England in 1970, a decision had to be made about what to do with its vast collection of archives. At first, the public archives in Ottawa was seen as a likely location to house the collection. But in the end Rolph Huband, the secretary of HBC's Canadian committee, said Winnipeg was the logical choice.
Rolph Huband: In Winnipeg there was quite a bit of Hudson’s Bay lore. There was the Nonsuch in the Manitoba Museum, there's a Fort Garry gate on Main Street, et cetera.
Narrator: Winnipeg had been the Company's Canadian headquarters since 1860 and the federal government's encouragement of regional cultural development also influenced the Company's decision to locate the archives to Manitoba.
Rolph Huband: And the biggest challenge to moving the material was where is it going to go.
Narrator: Fortunately the Manitoba government had been renovating the old Winnipeg auditorium to store its own archives. The government of Premier Edward Schreyer offered to house the HBC collection there. Jon Bovey was the provincial archivist at the time.
Pat Bovey: He was forever grateful to George Richardson who, with Rolph Huband, they decided the best thing to do would be to bring them on loan first, and then have the ownership transfer come some years later. That it was very clear, if I remember rightly, that going forward as a gift from the outset would not have worked, so John was very instrumental in saying, “let's take this step by step.”
Narrator: One of the first steps was physically moving the material across the ocean. Shirlee Ann Smith, the first Keeper of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives in Canada, spent a year at London's Beaver House, overseeing the sorting packing and shipping of material.
Shirlee Ann Smith: The winter of 1974 was one of discontent in the unions, and at one period we had heat for only four hours a day. I worked in winter boots and layers of woolen clothes. We lost no staff time. We simply regarded the situation as normal.
Narrator: In the end, eight containers weighing 20 tonnes each were transported overseas in three ships. Once the records were in place, it wasn't long before researchers flocked to the Manitoba Archives.
Shirlee Ann Smith: Well Winnipeggers, of course, had not seen anything like these 17th and 18th century documents, vellum-covered and handmade papers. And I remember one day there were thirty researchers in the archives, and I was working, I mean I was the only archivist on duty, and I went home that night, I mean totally excited and totally exhausted.
Maureen Dolyniuk: They've been used quite extensively for land and fishing rights and all kinds of rights cases. They've been used for environmental studies; the company kept meticulous records at various isolated posts over a long period of time, we're talking over 340 years of records that document day-to-day operations, and so you have detailed and extensive records of weather, sea-ice, the presence of sea ice up in the north, because of the shipping records as well. People who are interested in astronomy and want to track an eclipse of the sun back then. Genealogical research for people who are descended from people that worked in the fur trade. It's hard to even describe how many different ways they are used.
Narrator: Twenty years after making the transfer, the company made the key step of donating both its archives and its artifact collection to the Canadian public. A decision on where to permanently house the artifacts was reached during a meeting held in the fall of 1993.
Joanne DiCosimo: The most critical factor was the point at which the Elders indicated, when asked by Rolph, what they would see as the future home of the collection given its five-sixths Aboriginal content. They said that they felt the Manitoba Museum would be the best home for it because they knew they would, that would ensure that they had ongoing access to it. And that was a wonderful thing for all of us to hear.
Narrator: The Hudson's Bay Company History Foundation was established in 1994. The Foundation helps support Canada's National History Society, publisher of Canada's History magazine, formerly known as The Beaver.
Mark Reid: At Canada's History, we’re really proud of our past, but equally excited about the future. From the earliest days of The Beaver to today, with our magazines, our book projects, our website, we've got videos, podcasts. You know the opportunities to share Canada's stories are endless, and we really look forward to telling them for decades to come.
Narrator: The foundation also provides support to the Archives of Manitoba and the Manitoba Museum to help sustain long-term care of the collection.
Amelia Fay: The gallery is really fabulous. Our former curator Dr. Katherine Pettipas put together a really great example of the breadth of the collection and kind of how it covers everywhere in Canada. It's not just Manitoba, so we have artifacts ranging from Siberia all the way to the east coast and we have just fabulous examples within the gallery showcasing these different pieces of Canadian history.
Narrator: In 2007 a portion of the collection was given a special designation by UNESCO.
Ian Wilson: I think it's seen as one of the great trading companies of the world that maintain an absolutely extraordinary record over several centuries, and I think for that UNESCO has deemed it, along with other major documents internationally from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence to music scores of Mozart, as being part of the memory of the world heritage register.
Skip social share links