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.
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.
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.
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.