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a ritual of erasure: Canadian thanksgiving

With thanksgiving just around the corner, I figured it would be a good time to address the challenging topic of Canadian thanksgiving. In order to fully understand what it is and why it’s celebrated, we need to take a look at its history in Canada and the purpose it has served throughout the years. However, this essay is going to go into more depth about where the practice originated in an attempt to provide further insight into a complicated ritual.

There has been a lot of debate about when the “first thanksgiving” was in Canada – some people attribute it to Martin Frobisher, and his 1578 arrival. Yet, the meal consisted of salted beef and mushy peas – a difficult conclusion to arrive upon. Others credit Samuel de Champlain and his “Order of the Good Cheer” feasts which did include the breaking of bread with Indigenous people, but also served as a way to help colonizers fight off sickness, scurvy, and general malnutrition.

Without the help of the Mi’kmaq, most of the settlers who arrived at this time may not have even survived, so several of the men were invited to a meal that took place on November 14. There was food, drinks, literal gun-toting and even a play – the plot of which involved Neptune celebrating the settlers arrival in Canada, and ended with Indigenous people swearing allegiance to the colonizers and acknowledging European dominion in Canada. Basically, they were treated to a meal with a side of propaganda.

As Canadian history goes, plagues, forced religious conversion, and a war over Halifax, which – as with many places across Canada – was unceded to the Europeans, thusly leading to a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps, followed this meal. The appreciation for the survival assistance from the Indigenous people of the area had ceased.

From that point, thanksgiving was celebrated randomly throughout the years, taking place anywhere from April to December, in a fairly informal way. The first thanksgiving after confederation took place on April 5 1872. It wasn’t until nationalist movements like “Canada First” – a direct response to the Red River Rebellion – sought to unify Canada through the veil of white Protestantism, that thanksgiving was seen as a tool to further push the importance of family, farming, and religious devotion.

Sermons given around this celebration emphasized the moral superiority of Canada over the US, whom had just faced a civil war, which religious leaders painted as a punishment for their slaveholding – a crime many believed Canada was not guilty of (it is).

Another subject of focus during these times was the importance of bringing Christianity to Indigenous people. A sermon given in 1885 by Reverend Charles Bruce Pitblado stressed the need for “Indians” to be “recognized settlers” in order for the proper “reconstruction of society” following the North-West Rebellion. Through religious and cultural assimilation, it was believed that colonizers could promote a stronger, unified image of Canada.

The celebration of thanksgiving wasn’t cemented as the second Monday in October until 1951.

I’ve given a brief rundown of what most people believe the history of thanksgiving in Canada to be, with a few added facts pertaining to the lives of Indigenous people. However, all of these arguments over dates and details leave out one key fact about thanksgiving – it was traditionally an Indigenous celebration.

The practice of giving thanks preceded the arrival of Europeans by a long shot. As there are so many various and differing Indigenous cultures across Canada, the celebrations vary from region to region, but the practice of giving thanks for the bounty of the land is something that occurred across North America prior to ever being in contact with Europeans.

The Haudenosaunee people give thanks every day, not just on thanksgiving, but their Thanksgiving Address or Gano:nyok serves as a reminder to be grateful and observe the connection between all things.

The foods that tend to be eaten on thanksgiving – corn, potatoes, squash and pumpkins, cranberries, turkey, and sweet potatoes are all foods that are Indigenous to North America. In fact, it was the Indigenous people who introduced and shared these foods to and with the settlers.

In many ways, especially after acknowledging where the foods and customs originate, thanksgiving was a form of cultural appropriation that Europeans disfigured to the point that it became another tool in their repertoire to attack, assimilate, and eradicate us.

This thanksgiving holiday, when you’re surrounded by your loved ones giving thanks, give thanks for the food Indigenous to North America that you’re consuming; give thanks to the Indigenous people who’s land you occupy; give thanks to those of us who historically welcomed your ancestors and aided in their survival – without their generosity and guidance you probably would not be here today.

There are ways to show your gratitude, as well.

You can learn the names and pronounciation of the tribes who’s land you occupy. You can learn their history and what they specifically have endured. If you have the resources, you can literally pay your gratitude to those bands as a way of showing your appreciation.

You can put effort into researching the true history of Indigenous people in Canada, instead of relying on their emotional labour as a form of education.

You can support Indigenous owned businesses. There are several Indigenous owned restaurants in Vancouver alone, so perhaps your next meal at a restaurant can be at an Indigenous establishment.

While at dinner with your family and/or friends, you can speak about the origins of thanksgiving and discuss what you have learned about the history of Indigenous people. Also, this would be a great opportunity to stand up for us in the face of potentially racist family members or friends that always get a pass because they may be close to you.

You can bring some Indigenous influence into your kitchen and use somerecipes created by our people.

While the history of thanksgiving in Canada is muddled and uncertain, the Indigenous origins and influence on the celebration can’t be ignored. So please, remember that this year while you’re eating the foods we introduced your relatives to.

originally published on, 2018, written by bailey macabre

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