Wednesday, December 17, 2008

HBC: A Survivor, A Nation Builder... of White Canada

I like Ivaylo Ditchev's essays "Machines of Forgetting" because it brilliantly summarizes the violence of remembering and forgetting: "to forget is not only a ritual, a cultural or psychological strategy: we find it at the core of the political. In fact, to act politically means to liberate the present from the past" (Ditchev, 1998).

As I read today's newspaper, an article in the Business section hit me as a machine of institutionalized forgetting. The article in question, entitled "Feting HBC: A survivor, a nation builder" celebrates the wonderful things the company HBC (Hudon's Bay Company) did for the creation of Canada. In fact, the author writes, "Among commercial entreprises, HBC is a very rare thing, a unique thing, a company that turned itself into a country".

Right. And there's more: "In its first hundred years, HBC established a network of forts that would become Canada's most strategic outposts, and some of its principal cities, including Winnipeg and Edmonton". Indeed, how wonderful it is that such enlightened capitalists chose to come and establish wonderful cities in the virgin land of Canada.

Oh, wait a second, I have heard the story before. Was it "Heart of Darkness" that talked about the enlightened capitalists who were modernizing the indigenous savages in Africa, all of course in a very peaceful way? Or was it by destroying lifestyels, taking control of resources and turning people into slaves... gosh, I cannot remember... (sarcasm!). But I do seem to remember I couldn't sleep for weeks after reading the book... I wonder why...

Back to HBC, the cherry on top of the cake was this: not only did HBC helped create a country (presumably out of a virgin territory), but the photo accompanying the article is that of aboriginal people (hey my whitness kicks in, I think they may be Inuits but can't be sure) smiling submissively at the white man, with the caption: "The Hudson's Bay Company's incorporation is the No.1 business event in Canadian history...". No other mention of Aboriginals in the article. But of course, why would you talk about them when it comes to the wonderful act of creation of the Canadian state?

I'm not an expert in Canadian history. But I do have to wonder what the Hudson's Bay's story erases from history. Not to mention, how it played into the subsequent power arrangements between colonists and indigenous populations (hey, Canada wasn't a virgin land after all).

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