Manitoba Residential School Survivor Reflects on Thanksgiving’s Controversial Legacy

Manitoba Residential School Survivor Reflects on Thanksgiving's Controversial Legacy
Residential school survivor Vivian Ketchum on Oct. 7, 2023. (Temi Olatunde, CityNews)

As Canadians across the country prepare to sit down for their Thanksgiving meals, Vivian Ketchum, a survivor of Manitoba’s residential school system, urges the nation to reflect on the holiday’s complex history concerning Indigenous People.

“Thanksgiving’s Complicated Colonial Heritage”

Ketchum, who has first-hand experience with the colonial undertones of the holiday, says the colonial heritage tied to the harms done to Indigenous People is what keeps her from partaking in the celebration. She points out that the holiday’s premise, meant to symbolize the union of Indigenous People and colonists over a plentiful harvest, feels far removed from her lived experiences.

“Helping each other and being welcoming – I think that’s supposed to be the spirit of Thanksgiving. That doesn’t really happen,” Ketchum lamented.

Indigenous Peoples Day campaign (Shutterstock)

A Disturbing Reality

Ketchum’s pain extends beyond the holiday, shedding light on the broader issues Indigenous People face today. She cites a pressing concern about the high rate of Indigenous women getting killed, as well as the prevalent racism in the country, particularly in Winnipeg.

“How many times will I go to the store and I get followed? How about when I go to the waiting room and get treated out the door, when my brown face is perceived as a threat?” Ketchum questions, narrating her daily encounters.

Unpleasant Memories of School Thanksgiving Celebrations

The survivor recounts distressing memories from her school days. Ketchum remembers how they were made to craft paper bags as turkeys or adorn themselves with headbands and feathers in a troubling imitation of Indigenous culture for Thanksgiving celebrations.

“In school when we had to get ready for Thanksgiving and the holidays, we would be there making paper bags as the turkey. This really gets me angry when I think about it. When they used to make those headbands and little feathers and that, for that pilgrim story and how we used to be perceived,” she recalls.

Anishinaabe Elder Marcel French

A Call to the General Public

Anishinaabe Elder Marcel French stresses the importance of Canadians understanding the real price paid by Indigenous People for the privilege of living in Canada. Many of them, he notes, are denied the very things that are celebrated during Thanksgiving.

“I think sometimes they take that, and I’m talking about the general public I guess, they somewhat take that for granted,” French said. “It’s a cultural component that people forget.”

A Glimmer of Hope Amidst the Pain

While she has chosen not to celebrate the holiday, Ketchum appreciates the community spirit that brings people together during this time. She highlights a silver lining in recent Canadian politics, pointing out the election of Wab Kinew, the very first First Nations premier of a Canadian province.

“Maybe that’s a little bit of hope right there,” expressed Ketchum with a hint of optimism.