“What Burberry’s plaid is to London, the Hudson’s Bay blanket is to Canada in all its Far North glory.”
— Hudson’s Bay Salesclerk, 2003
To this day the Hudson’s Bay Company’s ubiquitous stripes convey the historical keystone of Canada’s naissance: the fur trade. In a country where national identity is perpetually under question, the Hudson’s Bay blanket has secured itself an unwavering position within the Canadian narrative.
The Bay has remained ever faithful to its stripy icon of ‘Canadian-ness.’ A quick look at the Company’s winter collection will confirm the commodification of a historical emblem. Indeed, it seems that the brand’s stripes have become a status symbol for Canadians, as prices for the average Hudson’s Bay striped jacket will range between well over $ 600 to just under $ 900. Just like Burberry, the Bay pattern is not just an example of nationalist aesthetic. It has become a class marker.
Not unlike many other marketing strategies, the Bay has begun a project to foster a sense of Canadian culture around the blanket, establishing a site called “Stripe Spotting” (http://b-insider.com/stripe-spotting/) where consumers can submit stories and photos about their Bay experiences. Such mini photo essays range from photos of dogs in stripy jumpers to entire rooms clad with HBC, from “truly Canadian” wedding photos to blanketed engagement photos centring around a ‘glamping’ theme: “Glamour Camping.” The latter is perhaps the best example of the identity that the Bay has sought to cultivate: a hybrid between a blue-collar, nature-loving Canadian sensibility and a sense of belonging to a White bourgeoisie.
It seems that the Bay has quite successfully managed to veil, recontextualize and reshape the original meanings of the blanket. Once an instrument of colonial genocide, the blanket has been imbued with ideas of glamour and an overall sense of Canadian inclusivity—to the exclusion of those marginalized by history.
One cannot forget that during the “French and Native-American wars between 1755 and 1760,” colonizers used diseased smallpox blankets as biological warfare against the indigenous populace. In disseminating the Bay blankets, the smallpox blankets were used as a genocidal tool to “extirpate this Execrable Race.” Complicit in this scheme, a British officer explained: “we gave them two Blankets and a Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” In fact, it would surpass this “desired effect” and proceed to determine the path of Canada’s history.
Such a history has been one of exclusion and marginalization. With the last native residential schools shutting down in the 1990s, Canada’s track record in matters of Indigenous Affairs remains a source of quiet national embarrassment to some. However, the country still manages to uphold an international reputation of humble correctness. Much of the colonial legacy has been swept under the rug, with Canada’s subaltern having little voice in the processes of historiography. To this day, policy-making pays little respect to indigenous needs.
What effect, then, does the revamping and reshaping of the Hudson’s Bay stripes have? Those privileged by the outcomes of history have had the power to manipulate a symbol representing an inconvenient stain on Canada’s reputation. The erasure of the blanket’s genocidal connotations draws an uncomfortable parallel to the consistent oversight of the subaltern within discourses of Canadian history and identity.
It is an embarrassment that people should unknowingly don the smallpox blanket—now a source of nationalist pride and wealth in their eyes. With so little awareness, hopes of accountability and justice fall flat.
The voice of the victor, loudest as always, proclaims his implicit victory of colonial rule.
– M. Polar
(Featured photo: Stephen Wedgwood, Creative Commons, Flickr)