Windows of former downtown Winnipeg Bay building, once boarded up, now feature Indigenous art

Once boarded up, the windows of the downtown Winnipeg building that housed the Bay for nearly a century now feature the work of two Indigenous artists.

Peatr Thomas, whose mural on the side of the building replicates one he did inside the nearby Qaumajuq Inuit art centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, said he was hesitant at first about having his work associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company — a company deeply tied to colonization.

But Thomas, an Inninew (Swampy Cree) and Anishinabe (Ojibwe) artist, said he hopes the art will help spark ideas for what the space might look like in its second life — possibly as a place where creatives like him can thrive.

“It will hopefully inspire something like that,” he said. 

“To have a space to share — share our skills, share knowledge, share teachings, even just share your life. It means a lot to me.”

Inuk artist Glenn Gear also has work displayed in the building’s windows, Economic Development Winnipeg said in a news release earlier this week. The piece is also a replication of one Gear has displayed inside Qaumajuq.

One of the murals along the exterior of the now closed Hudson’s Bay store in downtown Winnipeg. The murals feature the artwork of Thomas, an Inninew (Swampy Cree) and Anishinabe (Ojibwe) artist, and Inuk artist Glenn Gear. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

More artwork is planned for the windows on the building’s west side, along Memorial Boulevard, the release said. The installation received funding from the city, provincial and federal governments.

That included $10,000 from Brian Bowman’s office, Winnipeg’s mayor said in a statement on Thursday.

The Hudson’s Bay Company announced in October 2020 that it planned to close its downtown Winnipeg storefront in February because of “shifting consumer behaviour.” 

But when Manitoba’s pandemic restrictions shuttered non-essential businesses in November, the company announced the building would close for good on Nov. 30, two months early.

Looking forward

Thomas says while some Indigenous art focuses on the past, he wanted to do something different with the piece on the Portage Avenue building.

“The inspiration behind this piece is based on stories of prophecy, things like the seventh generation, the rise of a new time of change,” said Thomas.

“I’m trying to look at a more positive future.”

He said he wanted the work to remind people they’re on Indigenous land and feature “something built on truth,” which is why part of the mural is made up of rows of turtle scales.

“We call these lands Turtle Island, [which is] visually represented here. The turtle also represents truth in the seven sacred teachings, so the idea is a story in the future,” he said.

More artwork is planned for the windows on the former Bay building’s west side, along Memorial Boulevard, Economic Development Winnipeg says. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Thomas said he hopes the representation of Indigenous culture will serve as an inspiration for other Indigenous people who see it and as a conversation starter for non-Indigenous passersby.

“It makes me feel good to think people might take something from this,” he said.

“Maybe it might be a little eye-opening or have them maybe seek out what the mural might mean and where the stories are coming from.”

Thomas said one of the most crucial parts for him of working on an art piece is consulting people like his mother — an elder and knowledge keeper — for help with things like stories, names and translations.

“It’s extremely important to pass on what little we have. There was a lot that was taken away from us. There’s a lot that we don’t know. There’s a lot that we may never get back,” he said.

“We have to pretty much rebuild our culture and our communities from bits and crumbs.”

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