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Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada

By Donica Belisle

Review By Nicolas Kenny

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 176 Winter 2012-2013  | p. 169-70

Retail Nation is a thought-provoking study of the intersection between a rapidly growing consumer economy and the formation of culture and identity in Canada between 1890 and 1940. During this period, argues Donica Belisle, department stores, especially Eaton’s, Simpsons, and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), emerged as the dominant forces of Canada’s retail scene. Through modern sales, advertising and management tactics, mail-order catalogues, bulk buying, and cash-only policies, these stores positioned themselves not only at the helm of the Canadian economy, but as leading players internationally, becoming more profitable than many leading American and European giants.

But to Canadians, department stores promised more than dry goods and fancy frocks at competitive prices. In the early years of the country’s existence, they styled themselves as heralds of modernity, builders of democracy, nationalism and citizenship. Just “what kind of Canada did department stores help to create?” is the book’s underlying question (240). The answer is well articulated, though it comes as no surprise that it was a Canada of White, Anglophone, masculine and middle-class privilege, where women, minorities and workers were alternatively victimised or instrumentalised in the construction and promulgation of this vision. The book focuses on English Canadian stores, and aside from occasional references to Dupuis Frères or to shoppers in St. Boniface, the particular dynamics of retail in French Canada receive little attention. Readers of this journal in particular will note Eaton’s belated arrival on the West Coast, the prevalence of local giants Woodward’s and Spencer’s in the British Columbia market, as well as the significance of the 1935 Vancouver HBC store riot as part of a broader, but largely unsuccessful, critique against mass retail during the period.           

Belsile draws fruitfully from a vast historiography on department stores, both Canadian and international. She adds to it by looking not at a specific company or facet of the industry, but rather by portraying the rise of department stores more generally as a cultural phenomenon, one that was inspired by trends across the West, but that took a specific shape in Canada’s particular social, ethnic, and regional mix. Belisle’s rigorous analysis of the gendered, racialised, and imperialist language that permeated advertising material, labour relations, and interactions with customers allows her to explore in detail the hierarchies and discriminations on which the stores self-consciously built and sold their vision of the nation. Of course, these attitudes pervaded Canadian life at the time, and historians have documented their prevalence among intellectuals and politicians, in places of work and education, or in theatres and streetcars. Department stores fed into and reflected this broader discourse, but there are parts of the book where Belsisle gives the impression it originated with the Eatons and the Simpsons of the country, somewhat overstating that aspect of the argument. The book’s undeniable strength lies above all in Belisle’s critique of the stores through an engaging recounting of the experience of shopping or working in department stores. Citing customer’s letters, memoirs, employee newsletters, press accounts, and works of fiction, the author takes us into the bustling aisles, exploring the feelings of anticipation and disappointment that went along with consumerism, as well as the anger and frustration felt especially by women, either as mistreated customers or as commodified employees.

Though widely criticised by reformers, small business owners, feminists, and labour groups, it was ultimately new forms of competition that ended the heyday of department stores as of the 1940s. Belisle astutely notes how the outpouring of nostalgia provoked by the closing of Eaton’s and the selling of the HBC to American interests at the turn of the twenty-first century attests to the lasting power of the close association between mass retail and Canadian identity. In emphasising the gender, race, and class hierarchies on which this particular understanding of Canadian identity rests, and especially in shedding light on the way business interests have and continue to market an insidious “branded nationalism” in the country, Retail Nation makes a timely and important contribution to Canadian scholarship, one that is likely to attract a broad readership.

Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada
By Donica Belisle
Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011  320pp, $32.95