Eaton's was the department store of my childhood. We didn't go to the Bay, or even Sears, we shopped at Eaton's. Where winter coats and boots were purchased, where church clothes, and hats for Easter came from. Eaton's had the china department that gave me my life long love of pretty things - the china department you would walk through with your mother, in the china department position.
You would be stopped outside of the china department, just at it's beach front, women's wear behind and the racks of crystal in front. You would be stopped, and warned. A raise of the eyebrow, a certain look, and you would assume the Eaton's china department position. It was not until much later in life that I realized the china department position was never so singular as I imagined, rather almost every child knew it. You crossed your arms in front of you, holding on to your hands, and you.did.not.touch.anything.
I was 20 when I went to Eaton's for the last time, in their final sale close out. I went to the flagship store, and I remember I bought a blue cardigan, a leather day planner, and nothing from the China Department. Do not misunderstand, I wanted to. I wanted something from there, something I could keep, something stunning: I could smile and run my hand across, something to polish, that I could say "Yes, that came from Eaton's. I miss Eaton's." In that picked over world, there was nothing left to have.
I was sorrowful that a once great place of my childhood, a great lady of Canada, was reduced to such circumstances. Eaton's, occupying a small corner, smelling of desperation and sorrow and lament. It was tawdry, brightly-lit, with goods and fittings and refuse bundled on tables. I was looking at a strangers' bits and bobs, looking them over, commenting and speculating, forced to purchase. I felt wretched, and small and repellent, and it is a feeling that I have never quite shaken in memory. It broke my heart that Eaton's closed the way I did, and I have never been proud that I was among the many that picked over her last few effects.
And all of that discussion is a long ending, to discuss a beginning. The Hudson's Bay Company was sold to a private American investment group a few years ago. The living icon of Canadian history now rests across the border, leaving us an American CEO, and commercials narrated by Bonnie Brooks, who is almost sort of Canadian (if you squint). All of this is annoying and offensive, but perhaps not the worst. At least I could say, we still have the HBC. There is still a Bay.
HBC has the contract to outfit the Canadian athletes at the Olympics in 2010. And in the Canadian way, there has been much angst and wangling about clothing, and the Cowichan people were approached to make Cowichan sweaters for the athletes. And I'm not sure what happened but I know and can tell you this:
What the Bay is selling is not a Cowichan sweater. It is an overly expensive, machine knit piece of dreg, misinterpreting traditional patterns, and trampling all over cultural tradition. It has taken the traditional livelihood from a group of people, and insisted on the almighty name of fashion. As a knitter, as a Canadian, I'm ashamed.
I told you that I never wanted to see a Canadian icon die the way Eaton's did. I was wrong. If private American investors want a piece of Canadian cultural identity, they can have it. They can have it all the way south of the 49th parallel. I don't want it here any more.