Cross Country Checkup

Why this Indigenous radio host says it's time to decolonize Thanksgiving

As radio host Kim Wheeler and historian Peter Stevens explain, the origins of Thanksgiving in Canada alienate Indigenous peoples.

Kim Wheeler wants Canadians to rethink their Thanksgiving celebrations

Kim Wheeler (left), pictured here with her husband Jordan Wheeler. (Manuel Sousa)

Many Canadians are getting ready for Thanksgiving this year by reaching out to relatives and close friends, and preparing delicious feasts to share with their loved ones.

But in Kim Wheeler's house, it's just any like other day in the week. 

"It doesn't mean anything to us anymore," the Mohawk and Anishinaabe radio host told Cross Country Checkup. "We don't celebrate it. We don't have the big dinner or anything like that. We kind of just joke around and call it the 'You're Welcome Weekend.'"

When her kids were younger, Wheeler and her first husband (who was not Indigenous) would try to make the day special. This was due in part to the celebrations her neighbours threw on Thanksgiving.

"But then, as I got older and their father and I split up and I started learning more about my culture and my community and all the different nuances that come with it, we just stopped marking that day anymore," she said.

The Thanksgiving Turkey makes its way during the 81st annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 22, 2007, in New York City. (Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images)

Thanksgiving's origins

The history of Thanksgiving in Canada is not as widely known as American Thanksgiving and therefore the holiday may not face the same criticism.

Critics say American Thanksgiving whitewashes the oppression Indigenous populations suffered at the hands of European settlers.

The day's origins in Canada started with early Protestant leaders who called on the colonial government in 1859 to create a day of Thanksgiving. They wanted it to be "a fairly solemn occasion," according to historian and liberal arts professor Peter Stevens.

"Their vision was Thanksgiving was a day for people to go to church to really learn about what they saw as their divine destiny as a nation," he said.

"They felt Canada was destined for greatness and that the fall harvest was both a literal [and] metaphorical proof of the future greatness of Canada."

However, their conception of Canada's 'greatness' did not include Indigenous people.

"If you look at the sermons they gave during the 1870s and 1880s, there's no reference to a native people whatsoever," he said.

At the time, [it] was very much about understanding that Canada was this white country, a British country, a Christian country, and that was the agenda at the time.- Peter Stevens

According to Stevens, the lack of a reference to Indigenous people is a reflection of the mentality of settlers, that Indigenous populations were an impediment to their destiny. 

"The very absence of any reference to Indigenous people actually says a lot about the mindset at the time, because in a way, what's happened is that the Indigenous people have been completely erased from the story," he said.

This is the same mindset that eventually led to oppressive measures such as the Indian Act and residential schools — the effects of which are still being felt today.

"At the time, [it] was very much about understanding that Canada was this white country, a British country, a Christian country, and that was the agenda at the time," he said.

Wheeler said her experience in school didn't cover that aspect of history of Thanksgiving in Canada.

"If you look at the stuff that we did as children in school, we were still using those symbols that they use in American Thanksgiving, like the pilgrims in the hats and the, I guess, goodwill that was shown between First Nations and the new settlers," she said.

Kim Wheeler says her family no longer marks Thanksgiving — not even with a big dinner — due to the day's colonial roots. (Shutterstock/Alexey Borodin)

Decolonizing Thanksgiving

It's because of these roots that Wheeler wants to redefine and decolonize Thanksgiving. 

"Knowing what we know about Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in this country … why would we as an Indigenous people — and especially First Nations — celebrate Thanksgiving in the way that it was originally intended, to mark the arrival of settlers in the country?" Wheeler said.

The potentially good news, according to Stevens, is individual holidays tend to change meanings over time — and that's the case with Thanksgiving, which is no longer a religious holiday.

That could clear the way for more Canadians to redefine Thanksgiving in less oppressive terms, especially as the holiday falls near the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on the calendar, held this year for the first time on Sept. 30.

Continuing toward truth and reconciliation at Thanksgiving

1 year ago
Duration 2:01
CBC Windsor spoke to 2 Indigenous educators about what Thanksgiving means this year.

"Having those two holidays juxtaposed like that, I would hope gets Canadians to pause and think, 'OK, we've got a lot to be thankful for, but what was the cost? What systems were in place that enabled us to enjoy all this prosperity?'" Stevens said.

Wheeler says some discussions about celebrating Thanksgiving can get heated — and when she describes "decolonizing Thanksgiving," she knows she'll receive some "angry" pushback.

But she believes more Canadians — even Indigenous Canadians — are starting to pay increasing attention to Indigenous stories, truths and terminology.

We kind of just joke around and call it the, 'You're Welcome Weekend.'-Kim Wheeler

"I've seen friends refer to [Thanksgiving] as a harvest festival or a fall feast, and that they're going to call it that from now on," she said. 

"They've made a conscious decision to do that, and I think that's great because there's definitely room for many different kinds of celebrations on this day coming up."

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Interview with Kim Wheeler produced by Matt Meuse.

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