Two elk heads and two beaver skins presented to Queen Elizabeth II as rent in 1959
The terms of Hudson's Bay Company's Royal Charter are well-known. It granted to the Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson Bay a virtual monopoly over the commercial exploitation and development of resources throughout the entire drainage basin of Hudson Bay itself. And what did the Crown require in exchange for this bountiful gift? A periodic rent of two elk and two black beaver. No matter how you look at it, this must rank as the biggest bargain of all time!
The relevant clause of the Charter demands that the Governor and Company, their heirs and successors "be holden" to the Crown:
"...Yielding and paying yearly to us and our heirs and successors for the same two Elks and two Black beavers whensoever and as often as We, our heirs and successors shall happen to enter into the said Countries, Territories and Regions hereby granted."
HBC rent paying ceremony at the Gates of Old Fort Garry, Winnipeg, 1939
In actual fact, owing to the relative infrequency of visits to Canada by the Crown, the Rent Ceremony, by which the Company discharges its Charter obligation to the Sovereign, is a rare event. Since its founding in 1670, the ceremony has only occurred four times.
The first Rent Ceremony took place on August 9th, 1927. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) traveled to Canada, specifically to Alberta, where he owned a large cattle ranch. His route via Winnipeg, Canadian headquarters of HBC, provided an opportunity for the inaugural rent ceremony as a 'symbol of loyalty' to the Crown. On behalf of his father King George V, the Prince accepted two black beaver pelts and two mounted elk heads from London Committeeman and Chairman of the Canadian Committee, Mr. G. W. Allan. The presentation took place at the CPR station in Winnipeg.
A dozen years elapsed before the next Rent Ceremony. By 1939 the Prince of Wales had abdicated the throne in favour of his younger brother the Duke of York, who ruled as King George VI. In 1939, accompanied by his queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother, he visited Canada on the first-ever Royal Tour, travelling the country from coast to coast in May and June of that year. The Rent Ceremony took place at Fort Garry Gate in Winnipeg on May 24th. Before dignitaries including Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and with the entire HBC Winnipeg staff in attendance, Governor Patrick Ashley Cooper presented the King with the customary rent. The ceremony was filmed as well as broadcast live by radio to the world. The historic symbolism of the event on this occasion was particularly striking: Governor Cooper's ancestor, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Ashley and Earl of Shaftesbury, was one of the first investors in HBC, purchasing his original stock in 1668.
Address given at the Rent Ceremony, 1970
The third Rent Ceremony took place on July 24th, 1959 in Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg and was notable for being the first time the rent was paid to our present Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II. Governor William J. Keswick's address to the monarch linked this event to that other ceremony 20 years earlier:
"We therefore beg your Majesty to accept these two Elks and two Black Beavers which we now offer to You in terms of the Charter and in the same manner in which they were offered to your illustrious Father King George VI on the occasion of his visit to these territories in May, 1939."
On July 14, 1970 the fourth Rent Ceremony took place on a dais outside the stone wall of Lower Fort Garry. Though marred by rain, the day was significant in that part of the rent was animate: in place of the usual beaver pelts, the Queen instead received a tank containing two live beaver and a quantity of poplar. Her Majesty's rodent subjects spent the ceremony swimming and frolicking in the water. In point of fact the frolicking got distinctly out of hand. As she bent over the tank to inspect her new possessions, the Queen turned to HBC Governor Viscount Amory and asked "Whatever are they doing?" Showing remarkable diplomatic aplomb the Governor replied "Ma'am, it's no use asking me. I am a bachelor."
This was the last time the rent was paid. When the Company permanently moved its head office to Canada several requirements were removed from the Charter: payment of the rent was one of them. Does this mean that HBC will never again pay rent to the ruling monarch? It's hard to say. But we can perhaps say that if the Rent Ceremony does take place, it won't be paid 'live'!