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Heading into Centennial year, 1967, Canada was a place where anything was possible. And no place more so than Montreal, home of the country’s most flamboyant politician, Mayor Jean Drapeau. This dynamic individual would be the catalyst for one of HBC’s lesser-known adventures in support of amateur sports: Olympic House.

In less than a month, HBC became the major financial sponsor of a pavilion dedicated to the Olympic movement. How did this happen? The answer lies in the complementary goals of the key players.

In April 1966 Montreal lost its bid for the 1972 Summer Games to Munich. During the bid the idea of an Olympic pavilion at the following year’s World’s Fair had come up. The Canadian Olympic Association (COA) was enthusiastic. But everybody believed that the loss of the bid had quashed the idea – almost everybody, that is. As COA Executive Director Henk Hoppener later recalled:

… For all of us connected with the Canadian delegation …, except perhaps Mayor Drapeau, the “Olympic House” project returned to the category of needs without resources. However, Mayor Drapeau’s refusal to abandon the project … coupled with … the strong desire of our own Association to promote the Olympic movement in Canada for Canadians and the world to see, could now result in a last minute miracle.

Model of Olympic House. Architects: Chadwick, Pope and Edge.

Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba

And so began the search for a sponsor to bring the COA vision to life. Enter HBC.

For some time federal Minister of Trade & Commerce, Robert J. Winter had been urging HBC to participate at Expo. Various projects had been proposed and rejected.Then, on August 2, 1966, Drapeau hosted a tour of the Expo site.  His guests were Hugh W. Sutherland and T. Norbert Beaupré.

Sutherland was Deputy Managing Director of HBC, head of the Company’s Montreal operations. Beaupré was an HBC Director and President of B. C. Forest Products Ltd. in Vancouver. Drapeau proposed that HBC should finance a structure to house an Olympic Association Museum at Expo, which would subsequently become a permanent headquarters for the COA. He estimated it could be built for approx. $175,000 and furnished with exhibits for another $75,000.

Sutherland recommended the project to Managing Director J. R. Murray on Aug. 3. The COA proposal envisioned a permanent headquarters that would be a home for Canadian amateur sports associations, a “shrine” of the Canadian Olympic movement, a research facility and, perhaps, the seed of a future centre for sports excellence. The clear subtext was the message such a facility would send to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

However Canadian Committee Secretary Rolph Huband’s briefing note to Murray indicates HBC’s key reason to proceed was “to retain the goodwill of the Federal Government.”  Olympic House would guarantee that goodwill, especially if it helped secure a future games for Canada. On the other hand, the project would divert some of the Company’s charitable budget into athletics, an area of limited focus at that time.

Olympic House illustration, from the 1967 HBC Annual Report

There were other concerns. What sort of profile would the proposed pavilion have? What about Company recognition? Although HBC had acquired the local Morgan’s chain in 1960, its Montreal area stores still operated under the Morgan’s name – a situation which would persist until 1972. In 1966 Montrealers recognized HBC only as a western retailer or a company involved in the fur business. How feasible was the idea of a national headquarters for Canada’s amateur sports associations? In fact, many associations well-advanced with their own plans for national HQs, and the federal government was considering a proposal for such a facility in Ottawa.


And then there was cost. Expo was running over-budget across the board and Drapeau’s reputation for “optimistic” projections was well-known. Huband was skeptical that anything could be done so cheaply but tempered his opinion by advising that whatever donation HBC might make must have a firm ceiling.

The Canadian Committee met August 18th and endorsed the project conditionally.  HBC agreed to contribute $250,000 to the construction and furnishing of Olympic House as a museum during the Fair. It further committed $25,000 in 1968 to convert the space to office purposes. These amounts were maximum figures that would not be exceeded. The contributions would be subject to assurances that:

  • The building and exhibit could be built to Expo standards for the sum of $250,000
  • Additional funds required would be found elsewhere if required
  • The building and exhibit could be completed by April 18, 1967

The COA Directors accepted HBC’s conditions on August 27th, passing a further resolution to allocate $50,000 towards the exhibit costs. COA would manage Olympic House until the conclusion of the Fair in October, 1967. Subsequently COA would own and operate Olympic House as a permanent national office.

Exterior of Olympic House, October 1967

Photo by George Hunter / Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba

The public announcement was made August 30, 1966 – only 28 days after Drapeau first proposed the project.

HBC, as Canada’s oldest corporation which has operations stretching from coast to coast including very major operations of Morgan’s stores in Montreal, wished to participate in Expo 67. The Company is greatly pleased that it has found such an interesting and appropriate method of doing so. The building over which we will fly the flags of one hundred and sixty countries will house during 1967 an exhibit of Olympic material obtained from many countries.

The Company has always regarded the Olympic movement as embodying both nationally and internationally many of the ideas towards which men seek to strive. The Company has worked closely in recent years with officers of the Canadian Olympic Association in bringing about this worthwhile addition to the facilities of amateur sport in Canada. The COA itself will be providing fifty thousand dollars toward the cost of the exhibits.

On August 29 Robert Winter, federal Minister of Trade and Commerce wrote to J. R. Murray:

Dear Dick, … I am most pleased by your response to my request that you participate in EXPO. I think you have a most imaginative project and I hope it works out to everybody’s satisfaction and even benefit. I am very grateful to you personally and I hope you will express my thanks to your colleagues of the Board for their splendid co-operation.

And so the project-looking-for-a-sponsor met the sponsor-looking-for-a-project thanks to the match-making Mayor seeking to secure the Olympics for his city.

Interior of Olympic House, October 1967

Photo by George Hunter / Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba

And what of Olympic House? Despite cost overruns it opened on time. Exhibits illustrating themes such as Victory and Defeat, Quest for Excellence, Women in Sport, and Olympic History, etc., proved popular with visitors. In 1968 the building began operating as the COA’s HQ and housed a small contingent of City of Montreal staff working exclusively on Montreal’s bid to host the 1976 summer games. However, its location and poor transit service meant that it never became the centre so optimistically projected. Olympic House was sold to a property developer in 2002, generating net proceeds of $1.163M for the Canadian Olympic Family Fund for investment.




Interior of Olympic House, October 1967

Photo by George Hunter / Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba