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What Canadians Can Be Thankful For: Pemmican and Beavers

Thanksgiving Through a New Lens

Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Canadians celebrating this weekend!

As I’m sure you’ve heard repeatedly in the media – “Thanksgiving this year looks a little different”. COVID has definitely changed what we’re able to do, and who we can gather with.

But that’s not the only way Thanksgiving looks different to me this year. Thanks to the Indigenous Canada online course taught by the University of Alberta on Coursera, my lens is changing to see what we truly have to be thankful for about the ways Indigenous people provided for the very people who colonized them.

I remember learning in school that we have Thanksgiving holiday because the original pilgrims (i.e. colonizers) landing at Plymouth Rock were starving, and the “Native Indians” who received them gave them food (a turkey), which the pilgrims were so thankful for. They feasted on the turkey together with the Natives, everybody were friends, and we all lived happily ever after.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m being quite sarcastic.

I also didn’t bother to fact check any of that because I’m writing what I remember learning (and believed up until adulthood), not what is necessarily true. The sad fact that this is what I remember off the top of my head, underscores how deeply ingrained this teaching is.

I won’t be debunking any of this story in this post – there are better articles talking about Canadian Thanksgiving (here’s an example).

Rather, I want to share just two things I’ve learned so far from this this really awesome course which, even as just an overview, is incredibly informative.


Pemmican – the real thanksgiving food

What is pemmican? The Indigenous Canada course compares it to the modern day energy bar.

“The Blackfoot became important suppliers of food for the traders, specifically pemmican, a food made of fat, dried meat, and berries like saskatoons, strawberries, or blueberries. It stored well and provided highly concentrated nutrition. There were approximately 2000-3000 calories in every pound of pemmican. This food supply literally fuelled the fur trade so that traders could move northwest into the Athabasca region.”

The fur trade itself is a whole other thing which could be discussed, including its impact – both positive and negative – on Canada’s Indigenous and Métis people. Suffice to say, the early Canadians could not have survived, let alone colonized, this vast country, without the critical provisions from Indigenous and later Métis populations – just one example of which, is pemmican.

As further proof of how valuable pemmican was, in 1814, the governor proclaimed a short-lived ban against pemmican exports from the Red River Colony, effectively issuing trade sanctions against the Métis and others economically dependent on it.

So for Thanksgiving dinner – maybe we should be having pemmican instead of turkey, if we want to truly honour the past?!

What’s really cool to me is that Indigenous women, specifically, were a vital part of this trade – since they were the ones who made the pemmican. They also figured prominently in the later fur trade by preparing hides to supply the increasing demand for buffalo robes.

Contrast that to the way Indigenous women are treated in Canada today…

So, much gratitude and thanks to the Indigenous people of Turtle Island, who provided pemmican (and tons of other help) to the fur traders and colonists.


The mighty beaver – not just another Canadian stereotype

I must confess that I have repeatedly mocked and rolled my eyes at this well-known Canadian symbol.

Actually, my impression is that being a proud Canadian requires making fun of our stuffed animal mascots which tourists buy on their way out – moose, polar bears, and of course, beavers.

Maybe you can relate. I mean, aside from Beaver Canoe sweatshirts (I’m dating myself here), and Beavertails (yum!), I’m not sure what makes the beaver so great. It’s not like it’s some imposing, awe-inspiring creature.

Case in point – there is no “Beaverine” fighting bad guys alongside the X-men.

But thanks to this U of A course, I’ve learned that there is much more to the beaver than meets the eye. In Arthur J. Ray's book "An Illustrated History of Canada's Native People", we learn that one Innu trading captain in the early 17th century described beavers this way:

“The Beaver does everything perfectly well, it makes kettles, hatchets, swords, knives, bread, and in short, it makes everything.”

The U of A course notes go on to explain:

“Beaver fur has two layers – the guard hairs, which are stiff, and the downy undercoat. The undercoat was excellent for making felt, ideal for hat making. At this time in Europe, felt hats were extremely fashionable, and this made beaver felt in high demand by Europeans…Old winter coats became extremely valuable, as they would be soft and well suited for hat making.

The used furs that Indigenous peoples traded to the Europeans were essentially less valuable to Indigenous peoples than the European goods. Trade in beaver pelts in the 17th and 18th centuries would have been impossible without the cooperation and enthusiasm of Indigenous peoples to consume European merchandise and products.”

Photo credit: Alex “Skud” Bayley


Did you know this? I had no idea! I have greatly undervalued this animal which I don’t think I’ve ever even seen in real life. I now understand why we have it on our nickel (5¢ coin), and its importance to Indigenous people pre-colonization, as well as to Canada’s survival as a colony and nation (at the expense of Indigenous people).

Giving thanks

So for Canadian Thanksgiving 2020, I’m giving thanks for:

  1. Indigenous and Métis people, and the many ways they contributed to the survival (and flourishing) of early Canadians, even to their detriment;

  2. Moose, elk, deer, bison, caribou – i.e. most plains animals (not turkeys) who gave their lives to make pemmican;

  3. Beavers – whose sacrifice also ensured the survival and flourishing of Indigenous, Métis, and Canada as a country.


Share your stories and comments

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?

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