Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn’s transformation of former Winnipeg Bay Building gets another $31 million from feds

The redevelopment of the old Bay Building in downtown Winnipeg is getting a $31 million boost from the federal government, on top of the $65 million Ottawa has already committed.

Dan Vandal, federal minister responsible for Canada’s Prairies Economic Development and former Winnipeg city councillor, called the money a commitment to promoting economic reconciliation while helping to revitalize the city centre.

“Our government is absolutely committed to the downtown. We know that cities are judged by their downtowns and we know that downtown housing is absolutely critical to a safer, more vibrant Winnipeg,” said the St. Boniface-St. said a vital member of Parliament at a press conference on Friday inside the former commercial building.

“We also know that Winnipeg is the most vital city in Canada when we talk about reconciliation. I often say that Winnipeg is the Indigenous capital of Canada,” said Vandal, who is Métis.

The Southern Chiefs Organization, which represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota First Nations in southern Manitoba, acquired the former Hudson’s Bay Co. building in 2022. The OCS is in the midst of remaking the six-story, 655,000-square-foot landmark at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard in a development called Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn – “It is visible” in Anishinaabemowin.

“Today is a good day,” said OCS Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, who called the funding “a significant step” on the path to reconciliation.

The plan calls for the building to become a housing, cultural and service center, with 350 affordable housing units, an HBC museum, two restaurants, an art gallery, office space for indigenous entrepreneurs, a health center, a day care center, a senior center, a new SCO government headquarters, and a memorial to the victims and survivors of boarding schools.

Daniels said there have been approximately 8,000 hours of work done and 90 per cent of the people working there have been First Nations. But it is a huge project that is still in the remediation phase.

He is optimistic about a “soft opening” for at least parts of the project in 2026, which will mark the building’s 100th anniversary.

Vandal said Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn “will be an example for the entire country.”

“People who come here will be able to see reconciliation in action,” he said. “Projects like this serve as beacons of hope, guiding us toward a future destined for unity and prosperity for all.”

A man with wavy white hair and wearing a suit stands and speaks at a podium.
Dan Vandal says Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn “will be an example for the entire country.” (Justin Fraser/CBC)

The 2021 census says there were 102,080 Indigenous people living in Winnipeg that year. Approximately 45,000 are First Nations citizens of SCO member countries, the federal government said in a news release announcing the funding.

Hudson’s Bay Co. vacated the downtown space on November 30, 2020, and it remained vacant until the redevelopment plan was announced in April 2022. The cost was initially estimated at $130 million, which was increased in December 2023. to $200 million.

The Manitoba government committed $35 million in the initial announcement in 2022, while the federal government pledged $65 million (a $55 million forgivable loan and a $10 million low-cost loan) at that time . The City of Winnipeg has offered $10 million worth of tax breaks over 25 years.

Across the street from Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, SCO plans to work with True North Real Estate Development, the real estate arm of the company that owns the Winnipeg Jets, to redevelop the Portage Place shopping center.

The plan is to turn it into a complex that includes a health care tower, residential housing, community centers, offices for community organizations, commercial space and food services.

Escalators and empty floors of an empty department store are seen from the inside.
A view of the interior of the former HBC building on Friday. (Gilbert Rowan/Radio-Canada)

In December, SCO and True North signed a memorandum of understanding to work collaboratively on the Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn and Portage Place projects, with a single contractor, PCL, responsible for the management and construction of both.

The two organizations agreed to jointly build a residential tower at the east end of Portage Place, while True North sold the walkway linking Portage Place and Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn to SCO for $1.

Bernadette Smith, Manitoba’s Minister of Housing, Addictions and Homelessness, called the combination of the projects “a profound reinvention of downtown Winnipeg at a time when it is crucially needed.”

“I can already imagine the social housing that will be created here. This will change a lot of lives,” he said, with $10 million in provincial funding earmarked for that component.

“The community that will be created in this very building will help unify and bring families back, help educate, create employment opportunities and all the necessary steps so that residents can live their lives fully. I really see the vitality that will return to the center of the city.

Exit doors from inside a closed department store.
The exit doors to Portage Avenue are seen from inside the now-closed Bay building on Friday. (Gilbert Rowan/Radio-Canada)

Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham referred to the Bay Building and the intersection of Portage and Main Street as the western and eastern gateways to the city centre, respectively.

In two ancient symbols of colonialism, indigenous governance is now, or soon will be. The Métis Federation of Manitoba is converting the former Bank of Montreal landmark at Portage and Main into the Métis Nation Heritage Centre, while the OCS sets up shop at Portage and Memorial.

“I think that’s really meaningful and very exciting,” Gillingham said.

The MMF announcement came in 2020, the province’s 150th birthday, while this year marks Winnipeg’s 150th birthday, Gillingham said.