Origins and History of Thanksgiving in Canada

Indigenous peoples in North America have a history of holding communal feasts in celebration of the fall harvest that predates the arrival of European settlers. The Smithsonian Institute has noted that some First Nations “sought to insure a good harvest with dances and rituals.” The European settlers brought with them a similar tradition of harvest celebrations (for which the symbol was the cornucopia, or horn of plenty), which dates back to European peasant societies.

The first Thanksgiving by Europeans in North America was held by Sir Martin Frobisher and his crew in the Eastern Arctic in 1578. They ate a meal of salt beef, biscuits and mushy peas to celebrate and give thanks for their safe arrival in Newfoundland. They celebrated Communion and formally expressed their thanks through the ship’s Chaplain, Robert Wolfall, who, according to explorer Richard Collinson, “made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankefull to God for theyr strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places [sic].”

In 1606, in an attempt to prevent the kind of scurvy epidemic that had decimated the settlement at Île Ste. Croix in the winter of 1604–05, Samuel de Champlain founded a series of rotating feasts at Port Royal called the Ordre de Bon Temps (“Order of Good Cheer”). Local Mi'kmaq families were also invited. The first feast was held on 14 November 1606 to celebrate the return of Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt from an expedition. Having attended the festivities, Marc Lescarbot remarked that they consisted of “a feast, a discharge of musketry, and as much noise as could be made by some fifty men, joined by a few Indians, whose families served as spectators.”

This was 17 years before what is often recognized as the first American Thanksgiving — the Pilgrims’ celebration of their first harvest in Massachusetts in 1621 (which was actually predated by several similar events in the New England colonies by at least 14 years). The prototypical Thanksgiving feast featuring the uniquely North American turkey, squash and pumpkin was introduced to Nova Scotia in the 1750s. The citizens of Halifax commemorated the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 with a day of Thanksgiving, and Loyalists subsequently brought the celebration to other parts of the country.

When and Why Has Thanksgiving Been Observed in Canada?

The first national Thanksgiving in Canada was celebrated in the Province of Canada in 1859. Organized at the behest of leaders of the Protestant clergy — who appropriated the holiday of American Thanksgiving, first observed in 1777 and established as a national day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” in 1789 — the holiday was intended for the “public and solemn” recognition of God’s mercies. As historian Peter Stevens has noted, some citizens “objected to this government request, saying it blurred the distinction between church and state that was so important to many Canadians.”

The first Thanksgiving after Confederation was observed on 5 April 1872. A national civic holiday rather than a religious one, it was held to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from an illness. Thanksgiving was first observed as an annual event in Canada on 6 November 1879. The date for each of the following years, as well as a unifying theme for which to give thanks (usually concerning the harvest, though anniversaries related to the British monarchy were also common), was determined annually by Parliament. The holiday occurred as late in the year as 6 December and even coincided several times with American Thanksgiving. The most popular date to observe Thanksgiving was the third Monday in October, when the fall weather is generally still amenable to outdoor activities.

Beginning in 1921, Thanksgiving and Armistice Day (introduced in 1919) were celebrated on the same day — the first Monday in the week of 11 November. In order to give more recognition to veterans, 11 November was set solely as Remembrance Day in 1931. Thanksgiving was again proclaimed annually and typically observed on the second Monday in October. It was not until 31 January 1957 that Parliament proclaimed the observance of the second Monday in October as “a day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.” E.C. Drury, the former "Farmer-Premier" of Ontario, lamented later that “the farmers’ own holiday has been stolen by the towns” to give them a long weekend when the weather was better.

Differences Among Provinces

Thanksgiving is an official statutory holiday in all provinces and territories except Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador. It is called Action de grâce in Québec and is celebrated to a much lesser extent there than in the rest of the country, given the holiday’s Protestant origins and Anglo-nationalist associations. The main differences among the other provinces tend to concern the dishes that are served with the meal. For example, Jiggs’ dinner is often preferred over turkey in Newfoundland. Pumpkin pie is a common dessert nationally, but there are also regional favourites, such as Nanaimo bars in British Columbia, butter tarts in Ontario and cranberry pie in New Brunswick.

The First Thanksgiving Disputed

Some have argued that the ceremony of giving thanks celebrated by Sir Martin Frobisher was not a “real” Thanksgiving. The argument stems from the reason for giving thanks; that the holiday can only be associated with the celebration of the harvest. Europeans who brought the tradition to North America did mark the day by giving thanks for a successful harvest. However, the Canadian and American holidays are no longer restricted to harvest activities, and have become a day for gathering family to give thanks for their general well-being. In that sense, one might observe that the tradition has come full circle.