Sale of the Bay Store doesn’t make us any less Canadian

The sale of the Hudson?s Bay Company to an American investor, Jerry Zucker, was the big news in the Canadian financial markets last week. It?s a good deal for Bay shareholders, apparently, considering the difficulty the big department store has had in turning a profit lately. But the sell-off has caused a twinge of despair in the rest of us who wonder how much of Canada is going to survive.

Some see the billion dollar sale of this 336-year-old Canadian icon as the final indignity to a nation that has striven to go it alone, building something that is neither British nor American on the northern half of this continent.

When the Hudson?s Bay Company was established by Royal charter back in 1670, none of the shrewd investors in beaver pelts and frozen real estate could have envisioned the role their company would play in the future of the country.

Canada?s purchase of the Hudson?s Bay territory in 1870 brought Manitoba into Confederation and paved the way for settlement in the vast open spaces of the West between the Rocky Mountains and the Arctic Ocean.

There is a lot of evidence, however, that a commercial transaction like the sale of the Bay really has nothing to do with preserving either the Canadian heritage, or our appreciation of our past.

Ownership shifts abound in the global economy. Since 1990, investment by Canadians abroad has increased four-fold, to more than $400 billion. It would take a lot of Bay Days to equal that. A nation?s sense of itself, its commitment to its values, and its determination to build a future that honours its past is hardly affected by the sale of a department store, no matter how regal its antecedents.

The ways in which Canadians are honouring our past ? more so now than ever ? pay tribute to the fact we?re proud of our past, and we?re interested in preserving it.

Ironically, one of the greatest tools for bringing Canadian history alive has been The Beaver magazine. Originally a house organ of the Bay, it?s now a highly professional magazine published by the National History Society. The Beaver gets money from the Hudson?s Bay Company Foundation and recently underwent a revamping that has made it as readable as anything you can find on the newsstands today.

There are many other signs of a renewed interest among Canadians in our past. All the political parties ? except perhaps the Bloc Quebecois ? are ardent supporters of Ottawa?s Department of Canadian Heritage. It?s been underwriting many good causes, including supporting Canadian authors and artists and helping Canadian magazines keep up with their American competitors.

There?s also been an upsurge in private support for efforts to build interest among Canadians in our history. In the past dozen years non-profit organizations like the Dominion Institute, Operation Dialogue, and the Historica Foundation of Canada have launched programs to build understanding among students and adults of the illustrious achievements that mark Canadian history.

The people at Historica are responsible for those Historica Minutes you?ve seen on TV, extolling the virtues of such Canadian symbols as the Bluenose, or telling us how two kids from Toronto created the Superman comic strip.

As an author of a book on Canadian history (my Turning Points book examines the most important elections since Confederation), I have to plead guilty to a bit of a prejudice in favour of understanding ? and enjoying ? our history. It?s not dull, it?s just that we used to have dull story-tellers ? except for the likes of Pierre Berton and Peter Newman.

Our sense today of what makes Canadian history goes far beyond what?s happened just in this country.

The Beaver?s current issue crosses the globe. There?s the story of the Canadian woman who created the painting that inspired Oscar Wilde to write The Picture of Dorian Gray. We also learn about Hamilton?s unsung Bill Sherring, who against all odds won the marathon at the 1906 Olympics in Athens.

Our authors are writing books that merge life in today?s Canada with stories drawn from the many cultures from which our population has sprung. This year?s winner of the big Canadian literary award, the Giller Prize, is David Bergen, for The Time in Between. It?s a novel that links a Canadian with past events in Vietnam and Canada.

Most of all, our admiration for the guts and determination of our soldiers who fought for freedom in the two great wars of the 20th century knows no bounds.

Canadians realize we?re living in a world where the economies of different countries are mixed together. There is no conflict between this fact and our respect for what Canadians have achieved in the past. Their stories stand as inspiration for what we will yet achieve in the future.