Thanksgiving's genocidal legacy

Now associated with the Canadian harvest season the historical context of this now benign holiday is much darker

One of the first nations to make contact with Europeans was the Beothuk, who perished by 1829. Photo of the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd’s Cove, Newfoundland. Photo: June West (CC BY-ND 2.0)

One of the first nations to make contact with Europeans was the Beothuk, who perished by 1829. Photo of the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd’s Cove, Newfoundland. Photo: June West (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Turkey. Squash. Pumpkins. When most Canadians think about Thanksgiving they immediately think about the meal itself and all of the elaborate preparations that go into it. Only rarely do they reflect on the origins of this national holiday; those who do are often left with mixed feelings about this coast-to-coast celebration of community.

Now associated with the Canadian harvest season, and perhaps a cursory toast of what people are thankful for, the historical context of this now benign holiday is much darker and bloodier.

Canada’s first Thanksgiving has never been documented in the Western tradition. Settler scholars such as John Rausten Saul suggests in his book “A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada”, that like now, it would have been distinguished by a spirit of community solidarity and thankfulness.

There may be oral histories about the first Thanksgiving at the time of this writing, I had not heard back from George Brown College’s aboriginal services if any exist.

The community coming together to share a meal would have been Europeans and the indigenous people of Turtle Island; Europeans would have been the first settlers expressing thanks at having survived the voyage overseas and having made new friends who could help them survive the hostile winter ahead.

As for the people of Turtle Island, perhaps they would have been thankful at having connected with new trading partners who could allow them to access goods they had never seen before. I say perhaps because it is impossible to ask the particular nation of the indigenous people that Europeans would have made first contact with; in 1829 the last Beothuk died a slow death from tuberculosis, a disease brought by the “friendly” Europeans.

This decimation of one nation was the rule, not the exception; despite the indigenous peoples teaching the Europeans how to survive in the harsh winters, navigate the unfamiliar geography and thrive in this new world, Europeans were not equally hospitable towards their new trading partners.

Despite agreeing to numerous treaties recognizing the indigenous peoples as sovereign nations including the “Two-Row Wampum Belt” treaty with the Six Nations of the Iroquois in 1613, the European settlers systemically broke such treaties over the next five hundred years. Countless people have called the breaking these treaties as well as the numerous other actions undertaken by successive Canadian governments acts of on-going genocide.

With this genocidal legacy in mind, being present at the three separate settler-only Thanksgiving events I attend this weekend fills me with mixed feelings. At these events the various members of my chosen and biological family will be coming together for Thanksgiving.

Because these events will be about celebrating community and giving thanks, I will be raising my glass not only for those present but also to acknowledge the countless indigenous nations whose actions all settlers of Canada should be thankful for; those communities who are not seated around the collective settler Canadian Thanksgiving table.

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Thanksgiving's genocidal legacy