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Canadian Thanksgiving: From Age-Old Harvest Festival to Columbus Day Coincidence


Canada’s Thanksgiving has fallen on the same day as Columbus Day (more commonly known as Native American Day in some parts), the second Monday in October, each year since 1971. But Canadian Thanksgiving does not celebrate Native-settler cooperation as it does in the U.S., and Columbus Day goes by barely noticed.

The actual date bounced around for more than a century colliding with other holidays, most notably Armistice Day in November, before being nailed down as the second Monday in October by Parliament in 1957. Several provinces—Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia—do not recognize it as a federal holiday, although New Brunswick recognizes it under the Days of Rest Act.

Canada-centric accounts credit the British explorer Martin Frobisher, who celebrated his survival with a feast in Newfoundland in 1578 en route back to England after his unsuccessful attempt to locate the Northwest Passage, with holding the first Thanksgiving in Canada. Canwest News Service some years ago put some perspective on this feast in honor of homecoming rather than harvest. The Canadian Encyclopedia notes other early Thanksgivings that coalesced into the present-day celebration.

Another Thanksgiving tradition began in 1604 when Samuel de Champlain founded L’Ordre Du Bon-Temps, or the Order of Good Cheer, in Port-Royal, according to historical accounts. And after the Seven Years War ended in 1763, Halifax held a special day of Thanksgiving. Though Champlain and perhaps the others shared their bounty with native Canadians, aboriginals are not credited with inspiring the commemoration. Aboriginals are mentioned in passing in historical accounts as having long pre-dated these European-based traditions with centuries or more of festivals and ceremonies celebrating the harvest.

“There is no Canadian equivalent to the pilgrim story,” the Times & Transcript said in an editorial. “But added to the European tradition brought by settlers, we must acknowledge that the aboriginal peoples also had fall harvest celebrations, with evidence indicating this was the case for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived.”