I have a love/hate relationship with Thanksgiving.
Do you remember in Addam’s Family Values when Wednesday ditches the Thanksgiving play script and opts for a more … realistic … telling of the Thanksgiving story? If not, search “wednesday addams thanksgiving speech” on YouTube and click on the 3rd link.
It’s probably one of the most memorable and comical scenes of a movie from my childhood, but as an adult it’s also kind of one of the most hard-hitting.
Thanksgiving has, of course, transformed from being about the fluffy little story of the first Pilgrims on the Mayflower and evolved into a celebration of the fall and being thankful for the people and things in our lives.
But was it really ever fluffy? The Thanksgiving story we were taught in school – back when we’d make turkeys by tracing our hands and cute little Pilgrim hats – wasn’t really all that true. It’s a more romanticised version of what we would like to imagine happened.
Thanksgiving, at least the kind of harvest feast we learn about, wasn’t called ‘Thanksgiving’ and wasn’t repeated. It was a three-day-long feast celebrating the harvest, but it was a one-time event. According to the religious beliefs of the original pilgrims, ‘Thanksgiving’ was a religious holiday to attend church and thank God for very specific events, like a victorious battle.
The feast in 1621 was based around English harvest festivals. It wasn’t until after the first one that the governor of Plymouth’s colonists proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer, celebrated between colonists and the neighbouring Indians. The name thanksgiving was applied in 1923, when a drought leading into the harvest was broken as rain came following the celebration.
It wasn’t ever about friendship between the colonists and the Indigenous people. Of course the history of the relationship between the Indigenous and Americans is quite rocky, but it’s almost possible that Canada’s is worse. Instead of just taking them off their land and forcing them onto reserves, we created residential schools, designed for cultural assimilation. Except it wasn’t actually assimilation, but rather cultural genocide.
Although the damage we did has been brought to light and apologies have been offered, there is a lot of suffering, misunderstanding, and struggles to overcome when it comes to Canada’s Indigenous people. I often hear people complaining about how they do nothing to help themselves, but that’s hardly fair. Their circumstances are largely fueled by how Canada treated them. Indigenous women go missing and are murdered at an alarming rate – an issue that didn’t even become a nation-wide concern until the most recent federal election.
And when the government introduced the planned celebrations and flag for the 150th anniversary of our country, the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis voiced their concerns about how none of this represented their people – the people who first settled this land. There were protests at Parliament, and while they were all over the news, I knew very few people who were talking about them.
The issues surrounding Indigenous people are often swept under the rug, even as in some areas their culture begins to receive recognition and celebration. We welcome groups dedicated to bringing back First Nations culture, revelling in their beautiful outfits, and intriguing dances, participating in activities. But when the hard conversations come around, suddenly we all start to fade into the bushes like Homer Simpson slipping away.
Last year was the first time I found myself really challenged by all of this. As I prepared my contribution to our family Thanksgiving dinner, I suddenly found myself perplexed at my own feelings. Although excited about one of my favourite family gatherings, I couldn’t help but think about how much we have skewed the story to make it light-hearted and happy.
That’s not to say I think we should scrap Thanksgiving or feel guilty about the time shared with loved ones. Quite the opposite. I feel it’s incredibly important, amidst family holidays that are centred around us receiving things, that we have one dedicated day to be reminded of how thankful we are for those in our lives, and for the positive things in our lives.
But I also feel, perhaps, it is important that Thanksgiving also be used to fuel conversation on how we can better support our fellow Canadians. How we can help build them up and help them tackle the issues that are so deep-rooted we cannot fathom them. Things like tackling the high suicide rates, helping them figure out a way not to assimilate, but to be able to celebrate their culture and heritage while still feeling they’re a part of the Canada we have built today.
While I am certainly not suggesting dropping such a heavy conversation on Grandma while she passes you the gravy boat, I am suggesting that it should be something we commit to learning about on our own so that we can be equipped to have these conversations and contribute – so that we can learn the best way to quiet our voice in order to provide the opportunity for our Indigenous brothers and sisters to have theirs heard.
As we prepare for each of our own Thanksgiving feasts this weekend, I leave you with this challenge: listen to just one issue facing our Indigenous people and find a way to give that issue a voice this year. Speak to our local First Nations group about it, about how it affects them, and then let their voice be heard. Create a ripple, and it might just be the one that leads to a waterfall of change.