Using Versus Excusing: The Hudson’s Bay Company’s Long-Term Engagement with Its (Problematic) Past

  • Wim Van LentEmail author
  • Andrew D. Smith
Original Paper


Increased scrutiny of corporate legitimacy has sparked an interest in “historic corporate social responsibility”, or the mechanism through which firms take responsibility for past misdeeds. Extant theory on historic CSR implicitly treats corporate engagement with historical criticism as intentional and dichotomous, with firms choosing either a limited or a high engagement strategy. However, this conceptualization is puzzling because a firm’s engagement with historic claims involves organizational practices that managers don’t necessarily control; hence, it might materialize differently than anticipated. Furthermore, multiple motivations could jointly affect managers’ approach to organizational history, especially when dealing with conflicting stakeholder demands, rendering it difficult to historicize consistently. Examining the relationship between the legitimacy of critical historic claims, corporate engagement with these claims and corporate legitimacy, the present paper performs a historical case study of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s (HBC) long term use of history in stakeholder relations. The data suggest that under conflicting internal and external pressures, the HBC’s engagement with historical criticism became “sedimented” over time, involving both open and stakeholder-inclusive practices of “history-as-sensemaking” and instrumental “history-as-rhetoric”. Enriching understanding of corporate-stakeholder interaction about the past, this finding may stimulate its generation of social value and corporate legitimacy.


Historic corporate social responsibility Legitimacy Corporate engagement Sedimentation Settler colonialism Indigenous peoples Hudson’s Bay Company 



Montpellier Business School (MBS) is a founding member of the public research center Montpellier Research in Management, MRM (EA 4557, Univ. Montpellier). Wim Van Lent is a member of the LabEx Entrepreneurship (University of Montpellier, France), funded by the French government (Labex Entreprendre, ANR-10-Labex-11-01).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Montpellier Business School, Montpellier Research in ManagementMontpellier Cedex 4France
  2. 2.University of LiverpoolLiverpoolUK

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