Truth, reconciliation and Thanksgiving

Many of us grew up steeped in a version of the first Thanksgiving that was created south of the border: pilgrims and “Indians” sitting down together to share a fall harvest meal; peace and harmony apparently the order of the day.

There are stories about the first Thanksgiving in Canada, too. Was it the meal of tinned beef and mushy peas enjoyed by Martin Frobisher upon his arrival in 1578?

Or was it the Order of Good Cheer meal in Port-Royal on November 14, 1606, hosted by Samuel de Champlain, at which Europeans and Indigenous peoples shared food and drink, engaged in some musket firing and then watched the first European play performed in North America, in which Indigenous peoples acknowledged the sovereignty of Europeans and swore total allegiance to them?

Or, was it perhaps the Haudenosaunee seven-day ritual of harvest feasts, which had been happening for at least a century before colonization but was rapidly outlawed by the invaders?

The first three of these stories have been determined to be largely apocryphal, at least as far as being the first Thanksgiving goes. The Indigenous ritual preceding the arrival of settlers seems to be correct.

By the 1860s, an organization called Canada First was promoting a white Protestant Canada and the celebration of farm, family and religious devotion. It called for the institution of the cultural celebration we call Thanksgiving to this day.

To celebrate or not?

All of which leads me to ask whether there is an appropriate way for settlers to celebrate the fall harvest. If so, what is it? I have been mulling this over for the past few weeks, starting when I ordered my farm fresh organic turkey and began thinking about this year’s menu.

As I have written before, this is my favourite meal of the year but, as I learn more about the history of colonization and genocide perpetrated by my ancestors against the Indigenous peoples here and the benefits that accrued to me as a result, Thanksgiving has become complicated and uncomfortable.

Finding a new way

My partner and I have decided to continue with a harvest celebration, with a few amendments. We will do our best not to call it Thanksgiving because of the colonialist history of that word. Fall harvest dinner or harvest celebration seems more accurate, since that is what we are really doing: celebrating the foods that local farmers have grown as well as vegetables (and, this year for the first time, pears) that my partner has grown in our urban garden.

We want it to be a celebration, but our meal will also provide some opportunities for reflection and learning. This year’s menu will include a wild rice casserole as well as mashed potatoes. We may incorporate a short reading from this month’s Reconciliation Book Club selection, “Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call,” by Arthur Manuel.

As everything I have read this year reiterates, both truth and reconciliation (and Indigenous law professor Jeffery Hewitt says there can be no reconciliation unless, first, there is truth) are all about the land.

As Manuel writes in the first chapter of his book:

“(T)he land was stolen from underneath us. . . . And it is the loss of the land that has been the precise cause of our impoverishment . . . .  Indigenous peoples control only .2 per cent of the land and the settlers 99.8 per cent. With this distribution of the land, you don’t have to have a doctorate in economics to understand who will be poor and who will be rich. . . . (W)hen we speak about reclaiming a measure of control over our lands, we obviously don’t mean throwing Canadians off it and sending them back to the countries they came from. . . .

There is room on this land for all of us and there must also be, after centuries of struggle, room for justice for Indigenous peoples. That is all that we ask. And we will settle for nothing less.”

Perhaps a fall harvest dinner is the perfect time to reflect on this and then find ways to turn that reflection into action.

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