Thanksgiving’s roots in Canada can be found in Indigenous cultures and food, chef says

Edmonton chef Scott Iserhoff hasn’t always felt conflicted about Thanksgiving.

Like many Canadians, the holiday meant gathering with family and a turkey feast with trimmings. But as Iserhoff grew older, the founder of an Edmonton-based culinary business focusing on Indigenous food became more aware of the holiday’s history.

It became increasingly difficult to ignore the holiday’s colonial undertones: stories of the first pilgrims in the United States who were greeted by Indigenous people with dinner and help to survive — but also stories of the celebration of the ensuing slaughter of Indigenous people and taking of land, he said.

“I think now is the time to take that back,” said Iserhoff, a Mushkego chef from Attawapiskat First Nation, located on the western shore of James Bay in northern Ontario. 

His business, Pei Pei Chei Ow, offers guests the opportunity to learn about contemporary Indigenous food while also tasting bannock, stews and other dishes.

“Everything that’s included in Thanksgiving, it’s all Indigenous food,” Iserhoff said. “You got the squash, you got the tubers, the potatoes, the mashed potatoes, the turkey, the corn … they were here before settlers came, and that was a food source of ours.”  

Food ‘appropriation’ at Thanksgiving

Giving thanks and celebrating the harvest and changing seasons are also part of Indigenous cultures, he said.

But Indigenous contributions to Thanksgiving traditions are largely ignored today, Iserhoff said.

“Exploring food, there’s a lot of appropriation with food, and a lot of people overlook that and turn it into being inspired,” he said.

Critics are challenging magazines that publish features about Thanksgiving dinner with no representation of Indigenous chefs, Iserhoff said. “They’re calling them out, and I think this is the time to do so. If there were more chefs doing it, we could see a change in narrative eventually.”

How do Indigenous people in Canada view Thanksgiving?

University of Winnipeg Indigenous Studies Associate Professor Jacqueline Romanow talks to Power & Politics about Thanksgiving’s colonial history and if it’s time to rethink how we celebrate the holiday. 6:23

It’s common for young Indigenous people to feel some discomfort toward Thanksgiving, said Jacqueline Romanow, who is Métis from the Red River Settlement area and chairs the Indigenous studies department at the University of Winnipeg.

“It supports the myth that this land was discovered. It creates this idea that the Indigenous people here just simply handed over everything to the new sort of arrivals, that there was no conflict, that it was a very peaceful and happy encounter — which, in fact, is the exact opposite of what happened,” she said.

“Over half the children in care are Indigenous children. They’re not going to be enjoying those feasts. I guess you can say it’s like rubbing salt in the wound.”

Like Iserhoff, Romanow says she believes that Thanksgiving should be reclaimed.

“Indigenous culture is so strong and powerful, and … as Indigenous people — rather than just simply reject this sort of colonial idea of Thanksgiving — we have our own things to be thankful for, including our culture, our children, our families,” she said.

“And obviously, feasting is really important. Sharing food is pretty fundamental to relationships in Indigenous communities, and it will still continue.”

‘One of the three founding nations’

Like the growing movement in the U.S. to replace Columbus Day — which happens to fall on Canada’s Thanksgiving Day — with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Romanow said Thanksgiving in Canada should also be a time of recognizing First Nations.

On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden issued the first presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the most significant boost yet to efforts to re-focus the federal holiday.

Canada marked its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, an annual commemoration honouring the children who died while attending residential schools and those who are still affected by the legacy of the system.

But Romanow said residential schools are just a small part of what’s happened to Indigenous people in Canada.

“I think that if the Canadian government is really sincere about changing the relationship with Indigenous Canadians, that this would be a start, that it isn’t just Thanksgiving … thanking Indigenous people and recognizing them, quite frankly, as one of the three founding nations of this country.”

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