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Manitoba History: Cool Things in the Collection: HBC Films Return to Canada

by Maureen Dolyniuk
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 67, Winter 2012

It has been nearly forty years since the dramatic move of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA) from London to Winnipeg. Six twenty-ton containers of records were loaded on two separate ships—a precaution to avoid a total loss if one of the ships should meet with disaster. The shipments arrived safely in the fall of 1974, the records were unpacked, and the archives were opened for public research a few months later. The rest, as they say, is history! [1]

An eerily similar move of records took place this past summer from London to Winnipeg, albeit on a fraction of the scale of the original move. Rather than parchment and paper, some 500 pounds of rarely seen Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) silent motion picture films were shipped to the HBCA. The original films, many of them composed of highly flammable nitrate, were packed carefully in five steel drums and sent in one shipment, the acetate films and safety copies of the nitrate films sent in a second shipment and six hard drives containing newly scanned copies of the films were sent in a third shipment. Digital master copies were prepared in London so that viewing copies of the films could be available for researchers, filmmakers, and anyone interested in accessing the film footage. The fragile and unstable originals are carefully stored in a specifically-designed cold vault at the Archives of Manitoba.

The British Film Institute’s warehouse where the HBC films were stored prior to shipment. Inset: Unpacking one of the nitrate films at the Archives of Manitoba
Source: Kevin Nikkel

The films consist of thirteen titles. Some are complete films while others are splices or portions. The films portray northern Inuit and First Nations communities and the HBC’s operations across northern Canada from 1919 to 1939. Some of the earlier film segments were produced by the HBC for their 250th anniversary celebrations in 1920 and form an integral part of the documentation of HBC’s promotional campaign to mark this important milestone.

These films include segments shot from the HBC supply ship, the Nascopie, on its journey from Montreal to the Eastern Arctic and Hudson Bay where scenes portray the voyage and stops at Port Burwell, Lake Harbour, Cape Wolstenholme, Charlton Island and Moose Factory. At each port of call, footage was taken of HBC personnel and buildings, indigenous peoples, and activities associated with HBC operations. Also included in the early footage are sequences of travel to and from Fort McMurray, Athabasca Landing, and Fort Chipewyan; scenes of buffalo in Wainwright, Alberta; and pageants and parades in Winnipeg, Calgary, Victoria and Vancouver. Of particular interest in the later footage is a native brass band featured as part of a reception at the village Kitwanga along the Skeena River (1933), filmed text of a message from King George V to the Inuit in Inuktituk syllabics (1934) and scenes of a rent paying ceremony involving King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the Upper Fort Garry Gate Park, Winnipeg, in 1939. [2]

In 1956, the films, once part of the company’s archives in London, were donated to the British Film Institute (BFI) in London, England, to ensure their preservation. At the time, HBC did not have the facilities to properly preserve them. This far predates the transfer of the HBC’s archives to Winnipeg in 1974 and their formal donation to the Province of Manitoba, in 1994.

The survival of these films is in itself astonishing. Many of the films from that era have fallen victim to nitrate fires or deterioration due to the fragile nature of the film base. A significant amount of Canada’s silent film heritage burned in a nitrate fire at the National Film Board facility in Quebec in 1967.

The BFI, in agreeing to release the films from their holdings, recognized the strong link of the records to both the history of Britain and Canada. Permanently removing the films from their collection was a rare move on their part and is done only in exceptional cases. In agreeing to transfer the films, the BFI indicated did so with mixed emotions:

We were mindful that this particular case is a good illustration of how AV collections can relate to more than one national film heritage simultaneously (in that HBC did have London offices, and some of the films presumably had some distribution here), especially where the two nations are related by prior colonial history.

However, the BFI agreed that HBCA’s collections provide a wider context of the production of these films along with other complimentary textual and film based collections documenting the north. These resources, now together for the first time in more than 50 years, are of unlimited value to researchers from a number of academic disciplines as well as to filmmakers, writers and all those interested in interpreting and presenting Canadian history to a wider audience. The collection may even be more important as it provides Aboriginal and northern communities in Canada with a window into their past.

The HBCA is presently completing the series and inventory descriptions of this new resource, which will soon be added to the archives Keystone online database. The creation of digital viewing copies of the films is in process.

There are plans to promote awareness of this new resource. Two projects are already underway for one of the major film titles, Romance of the Far Fur Country. Local filmmakers, Kevin and Chris Nikkel of Five Door Films with the assistance of Dr. Peter Geller and the cooperation of the HBCA are preparing a re-release of the original 1920 HBC feature documentary. Through recreation of the original film sequences, the spectacular title will be brought back to Canadian audiences. The original film was screened in local theatres in Canada around 1920, but all mention of the film had disappeared from view since that time. No known copy of Romance of the Far Fur Country exists in Canada. A second documentary by Five Door Films, Return of the Far Fur Country, drawing on the intrigue of early northern films such as Nanook of North, will use Romance of the Far Fur Country, to explore themes about the HBC fur trade operations and northern development, while highlighting Aboriginal culture and tradition in communities spanning the country—from Baffin Bay to the Pacific Coast—the same way that Romance did back in 1919. [3]

Still image of a video cameraman, created from the newly acquired films at the HBCA.
Source: HBCA

Acknowledgements

This project to return the HBC films from London was made possible by the cooperation of the BFI in releasing the films and their extraordinary efforts in preparing them for shipment. It was also made possible by generous financial support from the Hudson’s Bay Company History Foundation and the HBCA Trust Fund.

Significant support has also come from two archives clients anxious to access the films and whose strong encouragement tipped the scales in favour of pursuing their return at this time.

Dr. Peter Geller had researched the films and prepared a detailed report for the HBCA when he viewed them in London in 1996. His report and inventory has helped us to understand the collection, its value to the holdings, and its research value. Geller’s research led to his book Northern Exposures, Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920–45 where a whole chapter is dedicated to these films.

Winnipeg filmmaker Kevin Nikkel, after learning about the collection in London, began exploring the potential for creating a documentary about their return and the repatriation of the footage to the northern communities represented in them. Kevin has been documenting the whole return process. This has involved trips to London in November 2010 to consult the viewing copies of the films and, in June 2011, to film the preparations for scanning and shipment to Winnipeg. Along the way, there have been a host of technical requirements for creating, storing, and transporting digital files and creating playable video copies. In the absence of technical standards for this work, Kevin has helped us navigate through some uncharted territory. His expertise and assistance has been an extraordinary benefit.

Notes

1. Deidre Simmons, Keepers of the Record. Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007, p. 283.

2. Peter Geller, Hudson’s Bay Company Film Collection at the National Film and Television Archives (London), Inventory and Report on the Collection, University of Winnipeg, 30 July 1996; Peter Geller, Northern Exposures, Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920–45, UBC Press, 2004, pp. 85-134.

3. Five Door Films, http://returnfarfurcountry.ca

Page revised: 2 January 2017

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