Celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving in 2020: Give thanks, not COVID

Happy Thanksgiving, Canada! For the non-Canadians among you, yes, this is Thanksgiving weekend in Canada. It’s always the second Monday in October, to be precise, but no need to wait until Monday when you’ve got a long weekend. Almost always perfect fall weather. Usually a time for lots of family and friends to gather to give thanks for all that we’re grateful for, and of course to eat far too much turkey dinner, pumpkin pie, and all the usual trimmings.

This year, it won’t quite be the same. Rightly, we’re all being encouraged – strongly encouraged – to keep our celebrations small and limited to people you live with or who are already in your bubble. Smart advice. Stay small, stay safe.

As unfortunate as this is and as unsettling the world is at the moment, we should always make time to give thanks for our blessings. As it turns out, the history of Thanksgiving in Canada shows that what I am most thankful for has been at the top of Canadians’ lists for a very long time.

Some Thanksgiving history.

American Thanksgiving is considered to have had its start with the legendary Pilgrims’ feast in 1621, when they gathered to give thanks for succeeding in overcoming many hardships and being prepared for the hard winter ahead. The first Canadian feast of thanks, on the other hand, can be traced all the way back to 1578, when explorer Martin Frobisher (of Frobisher Bay fame) held a feast in Newfoundland to give thanks for a safe journey (for most of his crew) around the Arctic (current day Nunavut in Canada) looking for the elusive Northwest Passage. Starting in 1606, Samuel de Champlain followed the custom of First Nations harvest festivals by holding feasts of thanks in what was then part of New France (now Nova Scotia), attended by both French settlers and local Mi’kmaq people.

Just as American Thanksgiving didn’t officially get started until 1885, Canadian Thanksgiving didn’t become a real glint in people’s eyes until the mid-1800s. And the reason that finally convinced those early Canadians to fully embrace the concept in the 1860s? To give thanks that they were Canadian, and so were not exposed to the bloodshed of the American Civil War! Now that’s a reason I can embrace

A COVID Thanksgiving.

In this year of COVID, aside from being thankful for my wonderful husband and family (who we hope to be able to see some day, when COVID is contained), and my friends (who are my second family), I am, as always, every day, like those in the 1860s, thankful to be Canadian. And I am also very, very thankful to live in the Atlantic Bubble!

Thanksgiving this year is taking place as the second wave of COVID washes over us all. It’s really pretty scary to read the rising new-case counts around the world each evening. And Canada is no exception. As you can see from this graph of cases in each country, all of the curves are ticking up. There is nowhere that wants to see their curve ticking upwards; it means that the virus is out in the community and can affect anyone at any time. Even our little province of New Brunswick, which has had remarkably low incidence of the virus, is suddenly seeing hot spots with what looks alarmingly like community spread. But at least we live in a country where our politicians of all stripes are onside about the seriousness of the virus. At least we live where most citizens take seriously the restrictions put in place to keep us all safe. And for that I am very, very thankful.

This link allows you to construct a chart like this for any 6 countries. Give it a try. Updated daily. Image credit: New York Times, Oct 10/2020 (click on any chart or map for more details)

The Atlantic Bubble.

For those of you for whom eastern Canada flies under the radar screen (and that includes many Canadians!), let me introduce you. The four eastern provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador – known collectively as Atlantic Canada – each have their own distinct character, but share many things as well. They share the earliest history of Canada, they share a close relationship with the sea, and they remain more rural and sparsely populated than much of Canada. Our collective population is just under 2.5 million, just 6.5% of Canada’s population.

Numbers on each province give total number of COVID cases in each province. The 61 is basically hiding PEI! I have coloured the Atlantic Bubble in green and drawn the border with Quebec and Maine in red. Image credit: CTV News

That population profile was one of the lucky breaks we had when COVID hit; we had no very large urban areas where the virus could spread rapidly with ease. However, we were also blessed to have political leaders who recognized the seriousness of the threat early on and took quick action in mid-March. There was nothing gradual about their approach. And even in what turned out to be largely – when compared to nearly every other jurisdiction in the world – a far less traumatic infection rate that we might have expected, we all took the threat very seriously, and still do.

Canadian COVID case data by province as of Oct 9, 2020. I have highlighted the provinces that are in the Atlantic Bubble and also their rate of cases/100K people. Image credit: Financial Times

One of our most successful moves in stemming the spread of COVID has undoubtedly been our most controversial.  Shortly after the virus started spreading, New Brunswick not only closed its border with the U.S. (Maine in our case), but also our border with our neighbouring province of Quebec. Their infection rates were extremely high, and our leaders believed that we had to protect ourselves, even from fellow Canadian citizens. Eventually the 4 Atlantic provinces, each of which had instituted similar border controls, determined that opening our borders to each other would be safe enough and controllable enough to enact. And hence the Atlantic Bubble was born!

How does the Atlantic Bubble work? Well, first of all, you need to have papers to show that you live here or have another legitimate reason to be entering the bubble, either by air or by the limited number of border checkpoints. If not, yes, you are turned away. And once you enter, even if you’ve only been gone for a few days to visit family, you must self-quarantine for 14 days, just as if you had returned to anywhere in Canada from another country. You must have a quarantine plan upon entry, you must give an address and phone number where you can be contacted, and, yes, you will be contacted. People have been fined and worse for abusing the self-quarantine.

One advantage of this strict self-quarantining and follow-up is that most people who have tested positive for COVID have brought it back from travelling outside the region, and have already been self-isolating when their test comes back positive. And because the government has contact information, contact tracing can be done relatively effectively. It has also allowed others who it turns out have travelled on planes with infected people to be contacted and advised.

Yes, this border restriction is controversial with some folks, especially for people in a few border towns and for people who have family or vacation property here and want to be able to come and go without spending 14 days self-isolating. It’s not easy. However, despite the enormous challenges to our tourism and related service industries, over 80% of Atlantic Canada citizens want the Atlantic Bubble to stay in place until there is some degree of confidence that it’s safe to welcome the rest of the world, including the rest of Canada. That’s the same percentage of Canadians who continue to feel that the Canada-U.S. border should remained closed, for the very same reason.

So, yes, this COVID Thanksgiving will be unique, and I’m sure we all hope that this will be the only year in which we celebrate Thanksgiving in this scaled-down, constrained manner. But there are always reasons to give thanks, and this year is no exception. I encourage you all to think of the positive things you are thankful for and to take the time to stop and give thanks. Even if you’re not in Canada and aren’t going to get to eat turkey this weekend!

As for me, I’d like to give thanks to all our health care workers, service providers, teachers, public transit workers, and yes – our Canadian politicians, for going above and beyond to try to do the best for us in this impossible time. There are no perfect answers, but I am very thankful for the hard work, collaboration and good intentions we have been so fortunate to witness. We are blessed.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

My university, the University of New Brunswick, in all its fall splendor, even while most of its students are having to study online.

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34 Responses to Celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving in 2020: Give thanks, not COVID

  1. bernieLynne says:

    I’ve thought how fortunate the Atlantic bubble has been for you guys! I think your politicians have indeed rose to the challenge and have put the area’s residents first. I wish we could have more restrictions here in Sask as our case numbers are skyrocketing and I feel like people need more restrictions imposed as so many can’t seem to figure it out themselves.

  2. Roy McCarthy says:

    An interesting description of your Atlantic Bubble Jane. Is there support for the businesses which are adversely affected? Jersey & Guernsey have no intention of ‘bubbling’ with our neighbours taking a much harder-line approach.

    And yes I continually despair of those who complain and criticise rather than see that for every negative there is a positive.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Very good question, Roy. Yes, there is support for businesses, especially from the federal govt. Of course, the airlines are getting dinged hugely and they’d like to see our quarantining requirement disappear so business people and family will be more willing to travel to our region. But to honest, those numbers are so small that lifting the 14-day quarantine wouldn’t really impact their bottom line much. People just aren’t flying anyway. Since I wrote that our little province has had its first community spread, in two towns west of us. We added 76 new cases to our previous total of 238 in a matter of days. So now the provincial govt has put those town “regions” back on high alert and everything has shut down. We’ll see what happens. Starting Saturday night our whole province now has to wear masks in all public buildings. Everyone at my gym (have to sign up online for your spot, restricted times and numbers, etc) is now wearing a mask while they exercise. I’m pretty sure everyone is just happy things can stay open in some capacity.

  3. Jean says:

    Fall looks lovely there, Jane.
    Sigh..our leaf colour is falling rapidly now in past few days. Then it’s hunkering most of the time, indoors for next few months.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Jean. Yes, our trees are shedding their magnificent leaves altogether too fast as well. But they are spectacular, my favourite time of year and a true gift of nature. I don’t mind the hunkering down so much, but it does last a long time! 🍁🍂

  4. Just got around to reading your very illuminating, interesting & positive Thanskgiving post. Thank you! I’ve often, when flying to visit family in Houston, peered out of the plane window at the interesting landscape of Canada way below, abutting the sea, and would be thrilled to visit as it looks empty, rural beautiful, unspoiled etc – in fact, our son suggested we might take a family get together/meeting part way holiday in St. John’s as it looks his kind of place. So there’s something to remind him of for when we can travel more freely & safely again. Thansk for that!

    So interesting to read of how Canada & your Atlantic bubble is managing Covid, as we stagger through the ever-changing and confusingly frustrating rules and guidelines our govt issues. I can’t feel very thankful about that, but I can put things into perspective and there are so many aspects of life that I can give thanks for, even if I have a grump and moan from time to time!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Joyce. Advice for you and your son: if you go to St. John’s and environs, which is a great thing to do, make sure you go sometime between later June to mid-August. Otherwise, Lord knows what kind of weather you might get! 😏

  5. You live in a beautiful place! And you do indeed have much to be thankful for. Very much enjoyed this post. I am hoping that by the time our Thanksgiving rolls around, we in the United States will have much to be thankful for.

  6. Christine Newsome says:

    Happy Thanksgiving Jane ! Your post, and especially the photo of UNB, set of a wave of nostalgia for Fredericton and the Maritimes. We do get fall colour here in B.C. and it’s extremely beautiful where I live in the Cascade Mountains, but it isn’t a patch on the amazing colour in eastern Canada. Thanks for the reminder. 😀

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Happy Thanksgiving from east to west, Christine! Pleased to hear that the sight of our beautiful campus in the fall can bring back happy memories. Maybe you can break into a G&S song!! 😏

  7. AMWatson207 says:

    This American is thankful for such good neighbors. Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, AM. We NBers all feel the same way about Maine … especially Freeport! 😏 It’s just this dreaded COVID business (well, and maybe a few other things that will rectify themselves soon!).

  8. Inkplume says:

    The Atlantic provinces are a beautiful part of our country and I have been lucky enough to visit some of them in the past. We had a road trip planned to Nova Scotia in summer 2020 that, of course, was cancelled. We are looking forward to re-scheduling. As a Quebecer, I fully understand closing the Atlantic provinces to outsiders and envy your low rate of infection. Like you, I am also thankful to be Canadian and for leaders, whose decisions may at times be flawed, but are taken in the best interests of Canadians. Happy Thanksgiving !

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Linda. You have written eloquently about the challenges of living with the heightened COVID threat in Quebec over the past several months, and now we see it rising everywhere. Very sobering times. The good news is that Nova Scotia will be waiting to welcome you, as will the winding roads through NB to get there!

  9. Soon 1k subs congrats dear. Really enjoyed reading here

  10. LA says:

    Your title kind of says it all

  11. As we read this together over Partridgeberry Pancakes and coffee, Wayne and I shared how thankful we are that you, our friend, are such a prolific and thoughtful blogger!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Partridgeberry pancakes! What a great way to start your anniversary celebrations. Congrats! And thank you both for your vote of confidence in my meanderings. 😊🍁🦃

  12. barryh says:

    Happy thanksgiving! Interesting post, Jane. I feel like I’m getting to know your part of Canada.

    We don’t have a thanksgiving in UK. Not much to be thankful for here at the moment, with covid on the upsurge again and government falling hopelessly between the demands of the economy and public health!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I’m delighted to share this special little corner of the world with you, Barry. As a daily (or more often) reader of the Guardian, I know what you mean. But it really is always worth remembering what we have to be thankful for. You could always make your own Thanksgiving! I remember all those MANY years ago when we lived in London when we were first married and a fellow young co-worker brought me a pumpkin at work, saying she knew I’d want it to make pie. It was really a VERY large squash, and Lord knows how she carried it on the tube! But she knew about the rituals of Thanksgiving. 😊

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