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Co-opting corporate CanadaT?

by Archives February 1, 2006

What does it mean to be Canadian, anyway? It seems harder and harder to define – not that it’s ever been that easy. Maple leaves, beavers, hockey, maybe Anne of Green Gables or local native artwork, depending which side of the country you’re on – all of these things symbolize this vast land, at least to the tourists who visit. But what do Canadians really identify with?

In many countries, Canadians are viewed in a positive light. We’re seen as polite, conscientious versions of our neighbours to the south. Is that really what it means to be Canadian?

Certain corporations seem to be truly Canadian. Canadian Tire for example, is the epitome of a Canadian company. Another runner-up for many would have to be Tim Hortons.

The Canadian Forces sees Tim Hortons as Canadian. They’ve just entered into discussions with Tim Hortons to set up a franchise on the military base in Kandahar. According to a Canwest News Service report last weekend, the soldiers want to add the “iconic Canadian chain” to the American franchises already there, so that they feel more at home. It looks like Tim Hortons will turn down the offer, not wanting to expand outside of Canada and the U.S.

Tim Hortons has over 2,500 locations in Canada and over 250 in the U.S. It is by far the most popular chain in Canada.

How did one of Canada’s most familiar coffee chains expand past Canadian borders, you may ask? The answer is simple: About 11 years ago, our beloved Timmy’s was acquired by a large American corporation we’re also quite familiar with – Wendy’s International Inc. Although Tim Hortons’ headquarters are still based in Oakville, Ontario, they are but a part of the larger U.S.-based company. One of the companies we as Canadians most identify as our own, and as truly Canadian, has merged with a company from the south.

It may be a trend. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) is currently the oldest corporation in Canada and the second oldest in North America. It has been around since 1670 and as a fur trading company, helped to define a still-forming Canada. Winnipeg, Edmonton and Victoria were originally HBC trading posts. Now it runs retail outlets including the Bay, Zellers and Home Outfitters.

The headquarters for HBC were in London, England until 1970, when on the company’s 300th birthday the head office was moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and later Toronto.

The company kept meticulous records and archived material, which have been open to public access in the Winnipeg Archives collection since 1975. In 1994, the company records, worth about $60 million, were given to the province of Manitoba.

In March of last year, HBC made a $100 million deal to provide the clothing for Canada’s Olympic team during the 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 Olympic games.

Then last week, on January 26, the HBC board unanimously agreed to be bought out by a South Carolina billionaire, Jerry Zucker.

Canadians see HBC as part of our history. Unfortunately, that doesn’t much matter when it comes down to saving a buck. It seems department stores like Wal-mart are cleaning up in Canada, as people want bargains, not nostalgia or history.

The company has suffered financially. In 2004 they also considered selling to the American corporation Target Corp. Zucker apparently plans to keep the retail outlets running in much the same fashion.

It’s sad that a company at least partially defines who we are as a nation. But that company’s been around, on Canadian land, since before Canada was Canada. Whether that is a good thing or bad is for you to decide. But it is part of our Canadian heritage and history, no matter how you feel about it.

As members of a young country, Canadians are still forming our identity. Perhaps Tim Hortons and HBC, which are companies based on profit, are not the best places to begin. We should think about what makes this country unique: Corporations may come and go, but the people and the land are what make Canada what it is. Canadians should learn what their country is all about: North, south, east and west. We are an extremely diverse country and as much as we are still faced by an onslaught of American culture, we need to learn more about what makes this country great and why we can be truly proud to be Canadian.

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