A critical look at the iconic Hudson Bay stripes in relationship to Canada’s history with our Indigenous peoples
By: Olivia Levesque, Arts and Culture Editor
So what part Hudson’s Bay Company consumerist market have you been sucked into? Is it their “undeniable” Canadiana vibe, the glamorous and high-end fashions, or their well-known HBC stripes and the history that accompanies it?
Well, here’s my answer. Growing up, I worked at a historic site portraying Canadian fur trade history. Completely enamoured with this history and culture I was taught, I absolutely bought into the HBC stripes. Modern day novelties such as iPhone cases, travel mugs, and overpriced sweaters covered with the infamous Hudson Bay red, yellow, green, and indigo stripes would have me spending all my money in a matter of minutes. I even acquired some original HBC wool blankets from family members upon my fascination with the brand.
However, being a third-year history student and studying from a perspective of the oppressed, specifically the case of the Indigenous in Canadian history, I’ve started to question the “Canadian-ness” of the symbol of Hudson Bay’s iconic look.
Historically, wool blankets were one of the main European trade items sought by the Indigenous peoples in exchange for beaver pelts, buffalo robes, pemmican, moccasins, and other trade goods. Wool blankets, or what are known as point blankets, were desired because of the practicality over the tedious task of sewing together hides and robes for winter warmth.
It is important to understand that the relationship between the groups of Indigenous peoples who traded with and the HBC is a complicated and tender story, rooted deeply in colonialist values. The HBC blanket is often used as a symbol to illustrate Canada’s fortitude and perseverance, of those such as David Thompson and countless French Canadian voyageurs. But for the indigenous populations, the fur trade is a reminder of the greater impact of colonization.
The involvement of the indigenous population in the fur trade resulted in a forced abandonment of traditional lifestyles and economy; they became reliant on European manufactured goods for survival. Conflict between different indigenous groups arose as trade competition fleeted, and the arrival of Europeans also introduced diseases that devastated populations. Smallpox is most notably recognized in history for its plight of the indigenous and its link to infested trade blankets. Over time the HBC has become associated with the epidemics that decimated First Nations populations in the larger picture of the spread of colonialism and assimilation.
Anishinaabe artist and activist Rebecca Belmore also critiqued the HBC in her multimedia installation, The Blanket. “Today, this blanket is an object of beauty, a collector’s item,” she states, “but for many Aboriginal people, I am sure it is still viewed as a trade item that once contained the gift of disease.”
These symbols of our colonialist past is an example of a blanketed attitude of a “Canadian symbol” that dismisses the toxic relationship with fur traders and settler societies had with the indigenous people of Canada. In our path to reconciliation, it is important to recognize how our past is represented in relation to the treatment of First Nations people.