Hudson Bay’s orange shirts link capitalism with colonialism

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Big colonizer energy Can Pac Swire via Flickr

The Bay’s cynical cash grab

Donning an orange shirt on September 30 was a way of standing in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, but buyers beware of where the shirt originates. 

Canada’s first Truth and Reconciliation Day was marked on September 30. The day was meant to symbolically recognize the harm done that the colonization of so-called Canada has had and continues to have on Indigenous peoples, and in particular those who were forced to attend residential schools. When Phyllis Webstad, a Northern Secwpemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation was sent to the Mission Residential School in 1973, at the age of six, the orange shirt her grandmother has scrimped and saved to buy her was taken away from her upon arrival. She never got to wear it again, and she says now that the colour orange “has always reminded [her] of that, and how [her] feelings didn’t matter.” When Phyllis later created Orange Shirt Day to recognize residential school survivors, orange shirts became a symbol of solidarity, healing, and allyship. Since the first Orange Shirt Day in 2013, the day has progressed to the mass production of orange shirts across Canada. The Orange Shirt Society, an Indigenous/settler-run not-for-profit, produces shirts that state “Every Child Matters” across the chest.

This year, the Hudson’s Bay Company has partnered with the Orange Shirt Day Society to produce orange shirts supporting residential school survivors. Some criticism of the partnership has come after the Bay’s large role in the colonization of Indigenous peoples before and after the establishment of so-called Canada. Many argue that they think the Bay’s actions are tone-deaf, considering they had a significant role in the genocide of Indigenous peoples.

All of the profits from the shirts are going to the Orange Shirt Society, which will go towards funding and social programming for residential school survivors. The shirts sold out within days of being placed on the stands.

Despite all of the proceeds going towards the Orange Shirt Society, concerns are being raised as people worry that the Bay will continue to profit off of residential school survivors. After discovering the burial site of children in Kamloops, many individuals felt an obligation to try and help this issue. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s production and partnership with the Orange Shirt Society allows them to ostensibly make reparations while actually attracting customers to the store and whitewashing their role in settler-colonial violence.

The Hudson’s Bay Company had a very large role in the colonization of Indigenous people, resulting in extensive intergenerational trauma of Indigenous peoples. The Hudson’s Bay Company has been around for over 350 years, far longer than the Canadian state. Within this period, we have seen extensive abuse starting on the first arrival. Charles II sailed the Northwest Passage signing the Hudson’s Bay Company charter, claiming 1.5 million square kilometers of Indigenous land via the racist Doctrine of Discovery. Despite the fact that the land was home to numerous sovereign Indigenous nations when the Hudson’s Bay Company arrived here, they dubbed the entire region Rupert’s Land and claimed dominion over it all. Although early settlers and trappers could not have survived without the aid of then-current inhabitants, attitudes towards Indigenous peoples were often cruel and violent, and became more so over time.

A more modern Hudson’s Bay Company department store has been marketed as a White modernity store. The Bay’s collaboration with Eaton’s catalog only showed White children playing with their toys while a mother cooked in the background. The first traces of Indigenous people within the catalog were well into the twentieth century. The Bay had about 100 stores in operation within Indigenous communities in the twentieth century, however, the low price of furs combatted by the high costs of goods left Indigenous communities in a constant state of debt.

The “Cash Back” Report was an investigation done by 40 Indigenous leaders analyzing the cost of how much Canadian settlers owed Indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples were promised money equivalent to $50 million by the Hudson’s Bay Company, but much of the money was left as an empty promise. In turn, the Hudson’s Bay Company made an equivalent of $97.5 million on land deals.

Being a colonial powerhouse that brutally and intentionally oppressed Indigenous communities left those communities with long-lasting damages. Next to none of this money will ever be repaid towards Indigenous communities. So, there is no doubt as to why Indigenous communities are skeptical of the Bay selling orange shirts.

September 30 marked the first annual Truth and Reconciliation Day, and wearing an orange shirt meant standing in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. Also, surrounding this new national holiday, there was no expectation of focusing on reconciliation and respect towards Indigenous individuals. However, a repeating trend continues with many occasions that celebrate and are inclusive to marginalized communities where different stores create a surplus of items that cater to each group and their event to attract more customers to their store.

Creating orange shirts that many individuals wear on or that are specific to a certain day shows that others should follow suit. When retailers catch onto a marketable point, they also try to get involved within it. Capitalism takes after any marketable commodity to create something that can sell quickly off the market. While Hudson’s Bay Company did forward all the proceeds toward the Orange Shirt Society, they will never match the cost of reparation damages towards Indigenous land settlement and wellness. Buying a shirt supporting Indigenous peoples from a place with a rich history of directly restricting the economic independence and loss of Indigenous livelihood does not follow the values of truth and reconciliation.

There are other ways to support Indigenous communities on Truth and Reconciliation Day than wearing a specific trademarked Every Child Matters shirt – supporting an Indigenous-owned business, making a donation to Indigenous charity, or even partaking in Truth and Reconciliation programming as a means of standing with Indigenous people.

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