Hudson Bay Blankets--Used to Infect Indians with Smallpox?

Roundup: Talking About History

Rita Trichur, in the Montreal Gazette (May 25, 2004):

For most Canadians, the Hudson's Bay blanket is a symbol of Canadian identity; a cherished emblem of the fur trade representing exploration, wilderness survival and the birth of a nation.

But as the Hudson's Bay Co. relaunches its historic multi-stripped blanket as part of a new Hbc Signature collection, a provocative Canadian art exhibit touring the country is suggesting the icon is tainted by controversy.

Artist Marianne Corless says while the blanket is steeped with national pride for the Canadian mainstream, some aboriginals view it as a grim reminder of the smallpox epidemic that ravaged their communities during the 1700s and 1800s - a dark consequence of the fur trade glossed over by history books but smouldering in native consciousness.

"It is not something that is really well known," Corless said in an interview from Victoria, adding some natives believe infected Bay blankets helped spread the epidemic.

"Disease in general played such a major role in reshaping the population of the country."

Her multimedia art exhibit, titled Further - currently showing at the eyelevel gallery in Halifax - is a blunt critique of European colonialism and the fur trade.

Wall hangings featuring five Bay blankets and explore themes of exploitation, disease and death.

In Blanket 1, a Bay blanket is transformed into a diseased Canadian flag. Hung striped side down, its central feature is a large maple leaf infected and bleeding with smallpox pustules.

Corless acknowledges the image is "violent."

"I was trying to determine for myself what it meant to be a Canadian, to have this as part of our history," Corless said, noting the Bay, established in 1670, was instrumental in exploring and settling Canada.

"It (history) is coming back a little more now to the forefront because the Bay is starting to use that again in their modern-day marketing," she said.

That corporate branding strategy includes a new Hbc Signature collection that relaunches the "heritage" blanket with a "modern edge."

While it is still sold as a blanket - its price ranging from $200-$400 - its distinctive green, red, yellow and indigo stripes also sport new clothing, outerwear, luggage and accessories.

Historically, however, the Bay blanket was a "principal" commodity traded by Europeans for native fur pelts such as beaver.

Made in England and transported by boat across the Atlantic, the wool blanket's history dates back to 1780....

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Charles McCant - 6/4/2004

This is a prime example of history repeating itself. The people of this world would be better off if some things were left alone.