Canadian Thanksgiving and the Indigenous Tension

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When I think of the times of celebration or holidays, I think of family, friends, and a good meal together. I cook food I might not normally cook and invite someone over to join my family and me. As a child and an adult, turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, perogies, gravy, and other delicious foods were always on the menu. Some sort of non-alcoholic punch, ginger ale, and a special dessert were also present at these celebrations. Usually an extended table of some sort was also part of the presentation of the setting. There was always some sort of smaller chair or stool that was thrown in there to accommodate all the people that were going to sit down. Nothing but happy thoughts are my memories of these times of thankfulness.        

As an Indigenous Christian, I have seen that there are many issues that still create tension with my fellow Indigenous brothers and sisters, whether they be Christian or not. The history of Canada has done a real number of them. They want healing, and many are working toward that goal, but I still see them struggling with several issues related to 500 years of colonialism. Since I was adopted as part of the Sixties Scoop generation, I was not exposed to growing up in a First Nations community, where I would have been exposed to some of the injustices of my people at an early age. Yet as an adult I have come to identify with my people, but I don’t feel I struggle with some of the same issues.

One of the areas of tension is Thanksgiving weekend. Many of us know this weekend in early October in Canada is associated with early settlers celebrating the harvest and God’s provisions over the year as they got ready for the long winter in Canada. As I started to identify with my people more and discover more literature on various subject matters of tension, I came to see that holidays such as Canada Day and Thanksgiving are areas of tension more than I thought. I have seen my fellow people who are a generation older than me struggle with these issues more because they are a generation closer to tools of colonialism such as residential schools. 

I know why many of my people struggle with these issues such as Thanksgiving, because they see a direct connection to when settlers came to Canada and the association with the government and churches who tried to “strip the Indian out of the Indian,” taking away language, culture, family, names, identity, and self worth, etc. The sad news is that many of my people will never “get over” these issues completely. Yes, as believers there is healing and forgiveness available through Jesus Christ, but because the intergenerational trauma is so deep, some will go to the grave struggling with these issues. Not all my fellow Indigenous people struggle with these issues in the same way, but this has been my observation of some.

Due to my upbringing and my own personal perspective on these issues, I might not struggle with them to the same degree as some of my people, but I can still identify with them. Yes, Thanksgiving is associated with the early settlers, but when you take a look at some of the history of Thanksgiving in Canada, you will see that the Indigenous people actually helped early settlers adjust to the harsh winters and some of the diseases that were taking place at the time. When you take a closer look at the early years related to Thanksgiving, you see that there was a genuine thankfulness between some of the early settlers and some of the Indigenous tribes in Canada and the United States. There are stories of these types of relations that happened in Nunavut (Newfoundland), and the Mi’kmaq in Eastern Canada. When the Indigenous people introduced berries such as cranberries, they were found to be rich in vitamin C which helped fight off scurvy, which was a real problem at the time.

If  all people would take a deeper look into the history of Thanksgiving, they would see that the Indigenous people were celebrating expressions of thanksgiving already, before the settlers came to Canada and the USA. The settlers were also already familiar with times of thanksgiving before they arrived in North America. This was not something new to either Indigenous people or settlers. When you take a look at the history of Thanksgiving in Canada, you will see that there are some misconceptions on the Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and some of the associations with Thanksgiving as we know it to be.

It is true that many Indigenous people don’t see this holiday as a positive celebration. There is still an association with having their land, family, and identity taken away. Yet as a Christian, I chose to see this celebration as a way of life. As believers, we are to always have an attitude of thanksgiving to God for all his has done for us.

Here are a handful of verses that describe how we are to be thankful:

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
  • Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
  • Psalm 7:17 says, “I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness; I will sing the praises of the name of the Lord Most High.”
  • Psalm 107: 1 says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

I can’t change how other people feel, or their reactions to events that have happened in the past, but I can change my attitude and how my heart responds to these issues. Although the history of Canada and the USA is stained with events that show that people in power didn’t see Indigenous people made in the image of God, I can’t dwell on that. If I dwell on those facts and not on who God is through the person of Jesus Christ, if I dwell on the negative instead of what God has done for me with salvation and a new lease on life with forgiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit, then I will forever be stuck in the past and never move forward reaching my full potential in the Kingdom of God. I won’t be able to help me people heal if I am still stuck in the past myself.   

I choose to acknowledge the past for what it is and acknowledge that it contributed to the pain of my fellow Indigenous people. I also choose to cling to the memories of my childhood with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, perogies, gravy, and other delicious foods. These delicious foods for me point to Jesus, who is our creator, sustainer, provider, and healer.

Jesus is my focus as I think about the true reason for Thanksgiving Day. I am thankful for Jesus, family, friends, the church, all my fellow Indigenous people, and how one day all this pain and unresolved trauma will be erased forever, when all who follow Jesus will reach heaven. When time as we know it comes to an end and Jesus returns and finalizes our new creation, we will all have an eternal heavenly banquet of thanksgiving with the glory of God shining for all eternity.

About the Author

Parry Stelter is an Indigenous member of Alexander First Nation. Member of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton. Founder of Word of Hope Ministries and Doctoral Candidate in Contextual Leadership through Providence Seminary and University 

Visit his website at wordofhopeministries.ca.

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Parry,  thanks for your thoughtful offering.

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