Canadian Thanksgiving is often lumped under American Thanksgiving in terms of its meaning and history, overshadowed by the larger nation’s celebrations. However, Canadian Thanksgiving is not just a me-too holiday placed on a different date, but a rich modern slice of the unique Canadian story. It’s a history that’s still visible to travellers and history buffs, if you know where to find it.
Baffin Island is the site of the presumptive beginning of the Thanksgiving tradition. Martin Frobisher made for the Baffin Island bay now known as Frobisher Bay, his third trip to date, but lost his fleet’s most crucial ship in the voyage. After a hellish winter journey, Frobisher sheltered in his eponymous bay. It was the fleet’s chaplain, Robert Wolfall, who began the now-universal tradition of offering thanks. The bedraggled crew sat and listened to his sermon, and began a tradition that would be mimicked by Canadians, French and English, civilians and explorers, for centuries to come. Tours of Nunavut and Baffin Island the surrounding lands often focus on this historic locations.
Another historic location, and setting for a number of famously hard Thanksgivings, was the oft-besieged French fortress of Louisbourg. Though it was eventually captured and destroyed by the British following the Seven Years War, Louisbourg was rebuild in the 1960s to allow travellers to see its unmatched Canadian historical pedigree. The most famous thanksgiving Louisbourg Fortress involved the celebration of the birth of Louis XV’s grandson.
St. Lawrence River
The St. Lawrence River was undoubtedly the most important geographical feature in the early European settlement of Canada. Many tours exist to teach Canadians about the crucial role it played, and a cruise down the river’s length is the perfect way to see its impact; dozens of cities and towns have sprung up along its banks, some of the earliest and most influential in Canadian history. From Quebec City, to Montreal, to Kingston, most of the river’s easy landing sites have seen a monumental event in Canadian history. Canada’s oldest architecture lines the St. Lawrence, and the ancient fortifications of old Quebec still loom over its ships, stuffed with history.
Following the much-ballyhooed War of 1812, British military intelligence learned that American generals had planned to cripple Canada by invading the St. Lawrence and cutting off Montreal from Kingston. To prevent such a crippling maneuver in the future, the British constructed a number of alternative trade routes, the most important being the Kingston-to-Ottawa Rideau Canal. The site is notable not only for the troubled construction process which spawned decades of controversy over worker deaths, but for the vital role it played in the spread of population through Upper Canada.
From history buffs to computer game nerds, everyone has heard of the great Yukon gold rush. It resulted in the acquisition of untold riches, and the destruction of untold lives. Though it peaked at a thriving population of 40,000 workers and residents, by the time it was incorporated as a city in 1902, the gold rush had ended and the city was just home to just 5,000 people. Today, Dawson does a good business in tourism, letting travellers see and touch the real tools and buildings in one of Canada’s most interesting, tumultuous periods in time.
Though it’s known for a number of large historical events, Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, is primarily known as the site of one of Canada’s most infamous events: the expulsion of the Acadians. All French-speaking settlers were to be forcibly removed from the maritime provinces, an order which was first announced and enforced at a small church in Grad-Pré, Nova Scotia. The “Great Upheaval” centered there, and this historic fortress township offers a rich viewing experience for such events.
Probably the most famous aspect of early European settlement of North America is the fur trade, and no company was more famous for its fur than the Hudson’s Bay Company. Fort Garry was, for a time, the central HBC trading post, and functioned as the center of its shaky relationship with the surrounding native peoples. Only the fort’s gate remains today, but a historical industry helps supplement this with by preserving memory of the region’s great national importance.
The Northwest Passage
Virtually every trans-Atlantic explorer from the sixteenth to nineteenth century spent at least some time travelling or looking for the Northwest Passage. One of the most famous water routes in history, this Northern oceanic gateway would be one of the more important strategic elements in global economic and military conflicts. Today, several historically-minded tours and cruises are available, with stops at the many towns along the way.
Just because the Europeans were the ones to build most the lasting and easily-visited architecture doesn’t mean that the native tribes don’t have historical treasures of their own to share. Nan Sdins is the name given to the remains of a remote Haida village on BC’s Queen Charlotte Islands. This former settlement was wiped out by smallpox and simple displacement, but its many artistic and historical treasures are still available to be seen. From intricate totem poles, to masks, to bentwood boxes, this is one of the finest examples of preserved Native culture.
The Maritimes house much of Canada’s historical sites, mostly for geographical reasons. Halifax Harbour, however, is famous for something totally unrelated to its border with the Atlantic: Halifax Harbour is known for blowing up. The Halifax Explosion of 1917, which willed at least 2,000 people, is one of the most famous events in Canadian history. It was triggered when the French SS Mont-Blanc, loaded with explosives for the war effort, collided with the Norwegian SS Imo. Until the Trinity test explosions for atomic weapons, was the single largest man-made explosion in human history. So violent was the explosion (and its ensuing fires) that it still defines much of Halifax culture to this day. Specific instances of damage to the great Eastern city have been preserved, shrapnel left where it buried itself in concrete walls. Even for a non historically-minded traveller, the Halifax Explosion is hard to miss.