What is Canadian Thanksgiving?

Every second Monday in October, Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving. We have a big roasted bird (your choice of turkey, chicken, duck, or tofurkey), green beans, corn on the cob, sweet potatoes, baked potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, and stuffing with pumpkin pie or pecan pie as a dessert with this very large meal. But why?

Everybody has heard of American Thanksgiving. The tale of pilgrims and native Americans and the large meals that developed over the centuries. By comparison, Canadian thanksgiving is a little different. There are football games on thanksgiving but it’s with the CFL not with the NFL. There are no big pre-Christmas sales after thanksgiving like Black Friday. But the big difference is that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October and not November. The date is tied to its history which is why it is in October.

Thanksgiving is not celebrated the same way across Canada. Thanksgiving is a statutory holiday except in the Atlantic provinces (Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) have an optional one. In Quebec, the day is called Action de grâce and is not celebrated as much like the anglophone parts of the country because of its Protestant origins and Anglo-nationalist associations.

Still life of a Thanksgiving table. Photo: Unsplash – Jed Owen.

Sir Martin Frobisher was a mariner, privateer, explorer who was sailing through the Canadian territories in 1578. In present-day Nunavut near Frobisher Bay on land, the ship anchored there to celebrate a safe journey across the ocean. They ate salt beef, biscuits and mushy peas as their celebratory dinner for Communion. The ship’s Champlain ushered a sermon “made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankefull to God for theyr strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.” This was considered to be the first thanksgiving, 43 years before the American Thanksgiving.

Then on November 14, 1606, in Port-Royal, Nova Scotia, there was the Ordre de Bon Temps (Order of Good Cheer.) The inhabitants of New France under the rule of Samuel de Champlain held a large feast between the indigenous people of the Mi’kmaq and the French settlers to help avoid scurvy and malnutrition. The Mi’kmaq people introduced the French settlers to cranberries or what was called petites pommes rouges (little red apples). This has a lot of vitamin C which helps prevent the illness. The scurvy epidemic almost destroyed the settlement at Île Sainte-Croix after the lake ice froze blocking the passageway in 1604-1605. Many French settlers were left without food, water and firewood. By March, the indigenous people rescued them by giving them food, fresh game and water. The festival meals were offered every few weeks for better food and entertainment. The settlers were taught by Mi’kmaq people how to live off the land by teaching them ice-fishing and which berries were nutritious and non-toxic. While the European settlers introduced the Mi’kmaq people to musket-firing and the play Marc Lescarbot’s Théâtre de Neptune. The play was written in the form of a masque, combining music, recital and choral song. The God of Neptune congratulated the explorers on their sailing prowess. The play was performed by 70-80 Frenchmen to the First Nations people. This was considered to be the first play performed in North America.

This thanksgiving happened before all of the treaty violations, smallpox plagues, Christian conversion and the Indian Act of 1876.

The day was always celebrated by the indigenous people before the settlers arrived. The Smithsonian Institute noted that some First Nations people “sought to ensure a good harvest with dances and rituals.” Both groups had ways they celebrated the fall harvest. Next to cranberries served on the day, the bird that was uniquely found in the areas of their thanksgiving was the turkey bird. The European settlers brought over the cornucopia, or horn of plenty.

Still Life of a Horn of Plenty. Photo: Unsplash – Brad West

The day of Thanksgiving changed multiple times since the official first day on November 6th, 1876. The first thanksgiving day in Canada was held on 5 April 1872 to celebrate the recovery of Edward VII, Prince of Wales from an illness. At the time, the celebration of the day was determined by parliament. The day sometimes coincided with other holidays and major events like Remembrance Day on November 11th and the American Thanksgiving. On January 31st, 1957, it was moved to the second Monday of October to avoid the two major event days not falling on the same weekend. It was moved to a Monday so that it can coincide with a large Sunday dinner the day before. The day was observed as “a day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.”


Canada’s History – The History of Thanksgiving in Canada

The Canadian Encyclopedia – Thanksgiving in Canada

Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia – Le Théâtre de Neptune en la Nouvelle-France

Maclean’s – The odd, complicated history of Canadian Thanksgiving

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