Targeting the Bay

Canadian commerce can be a trade in myths


Toronto—Canada's distinguished and formerly rather low-key newspaper, The Globe and Mail, seemed pretty excitable late last week: On Thursday, its page-one headline screamed in classic tabloid accents that "Boatpeople ate human flesh." (Turns out that some Dominicans had recently spent two hellish weeks adrift.) The very next day, the front page managed to strike an even more dramatic note: The paper ran a full banner headline across all six columns alerting Canadians that a "U.S. giant seeks to buy the Bay."

Non-Canadians will be forgiven for reading into that wording an effort by U.S. interests to pay cash for the Canadian landscape. Doubtless many Canadians expect to read just such a story someday, but in this case, "the Bay" refers to a store. Well, maybe "store" doesn't quite capture it. We're talking about Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), a 334-year-old institution that runs a "family" of retail chains (including the Bay), and that has shouldered aspects of a battered and wary Canadian identity. The "U.S. giant" that is reportedly in talks to buy part or all of HBC is Target.

"The sale of HBC," sighed The Globe and Mail in the first of a great many stories on the subject, "would leave Canada's oldest company in foreign hands, relegating to the history books a firm that opened up the country after receiving a monopoly to trade on all the rivers flowing into Hudson Bay, dating back to 1670."

You caught that bit about "foreign hands"? That's an uncharacteristically weak euphemism. No doubt Canadians would be sorry to see HBC controlled by the Dutch or Chinese, too, but the real point of this story is that these particular foreign hands are from the States. Picture those hands as relentlessly grasping, as reaching mindlessly from a vulgar commercial hell south of the border, and probably as featuring ragged and dirty fingernails, and you've got a Canadian view of the matter.

"I would much rather see Hudson's Bay Co. fold its charter and close its doors forever," wrote one Canadian reader to the newspapers, "than see it owned by the Americans." "I think Canada selling anything to the States is a step backwards," a Bay customer told a reporter. Such a sale "would be awful. Terrible," said a shopper who was described as "anguished" by the news. "Would I reconsider shopping here if it was bought by a U.S. company?" asked a loyal Bay customer. "Definitely," she answered. Yet another insisted that the Bay "should be left in Canada. Americans are going to take over everything. We don't want that." TV coverage consisted largely of Bay customers saying these kinds of things.

That last quoted customer is in fact articulating the real uber-story here: that a voracious and imperial U.S. continues to gobble up the culture, economy, and identity of a nearly defenseless Canada. The portrayal of the U.S. as the corrupt, grasping, and stupid giant next door seems to be in 24-hour rotation in the Canadian media, in whatever news guise happens to be available.

Canadian TV coverage of the opening of the Olympics, for example, seemed always to find its way back to the doping troubles of the U.S. track team (at least until a pair of Greek runners missed their drug test). The U.S. track-team story might have been told as a tale of a national program trying to police itself; instead it came across as a story about a corrupt culture. Similarly, the reports last week about San Francisco's invalidated gay marriages provided another chance to bash the U.S. A gay Toronto couple appeared on TV to dismiss the benighted U.S. as "farther away" from enlightened Canada than is the planet Mars. Apparently, a majority of Canada's own provinces have yet to recognize gay marriage, but never mind. In such a context, the prospect of HBC falling into the clutches of Target is a story that just about tells itself.

Or to put it another way, the HBC story offers an opportunity to assert the familiar and perhaps comforting news myth of a Canada embattled by its morally inferior neighbor. News "myths" like these are not necessarily falsehoods; rather, they are grand, overarching themes that, rightly or not, can be imposed on limited events to give the latter both meaning and context. They are like an instant moral to any given story. (The U.S. press obviously deals in such myths as well; its controlling themes about Canada are that the great northern neighbor is politically unstable, emotionally oversensitive, and that it has constructed a modern identity out of political correctness. Moreover, its Anglophone majority owes its sovereignty to historical accident and its exaggerated sense of difference to delusion. This mythic Canada merits as much "foreign" coverage as does North Dakota or Maine.)

While news myths shouldn't be confused with lies, they nevertheless can do notable harm. One source of harm is to limit coverage: Editors are more likely to run stories that appear to reinforce such themes than they are to run stories that seem to contravene them. Another source of harm is to distort the shape of those stories that do run. The HBC story, for example, is full of complexities that are submerged by focusing on supposedly grasping U.S. corporate interests.

HBC itself, for example, may be guilty of failing to respond effectively to a changing retail environment, especially the entry into the Canadian market by Wal-Mart and its lower prices. If that phenomenon were at the center of coverage, this would be a very different story. Furthermore, there's some ambiguity about the ultimately Canadian identity of HBC itself. There's an argument, for example, that for its first 300 years or so, the controlling interest in HBC was actually British. However, the theme of "Canada under U.S. threat" wouldn't work so well if HBC were portrayed as less than a purely Canadian institution. Finally, HBC's own business practices in the course of its long history may not always have been admirable. One of its "competitive" responses to the challenge of other chartered fur trappers in regions adjacent to its own, for example, is said to have been the extermination of all the beavers in the area, so as to starve non-HBC trappers of valuable furs. However, an HBC with a mottled business history makes for a less appealing business victim.

Yet while Canadian journalism naturally reflects national concerns, it doesn't actually pander to national prejudice. TV coverage may have tended toward the simplistic, but the tidal wave of print coverage of the HBC story included many of its angles. For example, the issue of HBC's anemic response to retail changes was quickly addressed, albeit as a sidebar in the business section. Indeed, in its massive second-day coverage of the issue, The Globe and Mail ran a front-page paean to Target by a journalist who had lived in Los Angeles. "We're not losing a cultural icon," read the print headline on that story, "we're gaining the cult of Target." The story attempted to explain Target's niche in the U.S. market as both a discount house and a source of stylishly designed household goods. It even tried to train Canadian readers to say "Tar-zhay."

Nevertheless, the central thrust of the story remained true to national mythologies on both sides of the border. In Canada, you could measure the myth by the introductory banner headlines about a "U.S. giant," and especially by the "anguished" reception of the story by readers and viewers. As for the U.S., you could measure the countervailing myth by the fact that the story received hardly any attention at all.