Well ... it depends.
Canadians are more than a little sensitive about our national identity. Our historic and geographic place, falling somewhere between Britain and the United States, has meant this has always been the case. We suffer periodic bouts of hyper-nationalistic fervour (N.B. that Canuck spelling!) every now and again. The Winter Olympics in Vancouver saw the last really significant flare-up. With the Sochi Games less than six months away, we can expect to see more of the same.
What this means is that we are very invested in our national symbols: hockey, the maple leaf, the canoe. And HBC. Yes: Hudson’s Bay Company is seen by many Canadians as part and parcel of the Canadian identity. If you doubt it, there’s scientific proof.
In 2011 the Martin Prosperity Institute named Moncton the most "Canuck" city in Canada. Among the criteria, the number of HBC stores a community has:
"In honour of Canada Day, the Martin Prosperity Institute developed an index using a blend of eight quintessential “Canadian” metrics (per 100,000 residents) using a variety of data sources. They are: the number of breweries, the number of Tim Horton’s, number of syrup producers, number of fur stores, and the labour force share of the fishing, farming, and forestry class, number of Hudson Bay Company Stores (the Bay, Zeller’s, and Home Outfitters) as well as CHL and NHL hockey teams (we weighted NHL teams at twice a CHL team), by Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) and Census Agglomeration (CA)."
So the recent announcement that HBC will acquire American luxury retailer Saks by year end will be seen by some as a threat, a sign of the continuing loss of the Company’s Canadian identity. But how accurate is this view?
HBC is Canada’s oldest company, right? Yes and no. Yes, it’s been here forever – or so it seems. But how Canadian was the historic Company? Well, not very. For the first 300 years it was a British company, owned and operated, for the most of that period, by British people. The profits as well as the pelts went overseas for a very, very long time.
Fast forward to 1970, and the start of HBC’s fourth century in business. In its 300th year HBC became a Canadian company at last. Head Office was relocated to Canada, the Charter was Canadianized under Canadian corporation law, and last but not least, the Company’s ownership changed from predominantly British (approx. 85% in 1970) to Canadian (approx. 55% by 1974). And about time, too! Hence the uproar in some quarters when the Company was sold to American owners in 2006. Many Canadians lamented the loss of “our” iconic company to those dastardly Americans, a feeling many Brits would recognize from their own experience in 1970.
Today our American ties are greater than ever. Not only our owners but increasingly our retail expansion is south of the border, first with Lord & Taylor, America’s oldest retailer, and soon with Saks. We are becoming an international retail giant. Firmly based in North America we are starting to build awareness around the world with our iconic Hudson’s Bay brand. Our history and the spirit of adventure that inspires everything we do is our entrée to rest of the world. But are we still Canadian?
Well, not if ownership is your only yardstick. But if your take is broader, then yes, absolutely. Hudson’s Bay remains a Canadian banner and brand, employs thousands of Canadians and is historically bound to this nation in a way that is unique in the world. School kids across the country learn our history as part of the core curriculum, while our blankets – still made in Britain – remain the quintessential Canadian gift, given by the federal government to visiting dignitaries. And last but not least our stripes, recognized around the world, say “Canada” to the rest of the planet.
All of which is to say that while you may be able to take HBC out of Canada, you can’t take Canada out of HBC.