Rethinking Indigenous Day/Thanksgiving celebrations: Unconscious bias against First Nations

For some people, Canadian Thanksgiving is a day of celebration. It's a day to give thanks for the harvest season accompanied by the changing leaves and autumn flavours, such as apple, pumpkin, maple, and cranberry. But have we stopped to think about what the holiday means for Indigenous People and the biases it fosters?


Portrayals of Indigenous People on Thanksgiving cards, decorations, and pop culture are stereotypic. These depictions are based on a composite view of Indigenous People instead of a more accurate, diverse picture of their lifestyles and traditions. This imagery serves to teach and reinforce misinformation and stereotypic thinking about Indigenous People, laying a foundation for prejudice and unconscious bias.


The origins of Thanksgiving

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First Nations across Turtle Island would celebrate Thanksgiving for surviving winter and for receiving food (from game and crops) as a reward for their hard work. These traditions preface the arrival of European settlers.


After Europeans arrived, they held their first Thanksgiving to thank God for allowing them to arrive safely. They were also thankful that the Indigenous People helped them survive and navigate their new world.


The First Nations taught Europeans how to build canoes for transportation, make medicine from plants, build shelters for protection against the elements, and sew clothing for the winter. They also taught the new settlers where the best hunting areas were so that they could find food for survival.


But what did they get in return?


Indigenous People of Canada experienced brutalities at the hands of the European colonists. There were people killed, raped, enslaved, and purposely infected with deadly diseases. They lost their land and their dignity. However, the colonists forced them to get along with Europeans in order to keep the "peace" and have access to valuable resources.


So instead of a celebration, Thanksgiving is a time of mourning for Indigenous People in Canada. Yet, when that time comes every year, they have to see their culture and traditions misrepresented in books, TV shows, movies, and other media. This has led to stereotypes that have promoted racism, prejudice, and unconscious biases against Indigenous People.


What is unconscious bias?

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Unconscious bias is an underlying attitude and stereotype about certain groups of people that we form outside of our own conscious awareness. In other words, unconscious bias occurs when we assume, believe, or adopt an attitude about certain groups of people without even realizing it.


So you may be wondering, what types and examples of unconscious bias exist regarding Indigenous People? An example is one many of us know all too well: Indian mascots. College, high school, and professional football teams utilize First Nations images and logos on their uniforms. These images often depict First Nations People as primitive people, which for many has become the definition of what "being Indian" means. This is just one of the many bias examples in real life that relate to First Nations culture.


There are many unconscious biases against Indigenous People that drive our attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, and behaviours towards them. But by educating ourselves about them and working towards expanding our cultural intelligence, we can overcome unconscious bias.

How to tackle unconscious bias

Luckily, unconscious biases aren't permanent. We can reduce our unconscious biases and limit their impact on our thoughts and behaviours.

To address unconscious bias, you can:

  • Promote self-awareness: The first step to overcoming unconscious bias is recognizing you have a bias. We all have biases, they are a natural, biological part of how our brains function. If you're not sure, taking the Implicit Associations Test can be helpful.

  • Understand the nature of the bias: Understanding where the bias might have come from can help you approach your bias in a more informed and open way.

  • Have facilitated discussions and training sessions: When it comes to learning how to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace, unconscious bias training has proven to be effective. Facilitated discussions that promote bias literacy, diversity and inclusion, and inclusive leadership have also been effective in limiting bias.


Become culturally intelligent

At Tough Convos, we strive to help organizations realize that growth means being uncomfortable. We facilitate discussions to help teams develop a better understanding of the multiple cultures within the organization. The ultimate goal is to minimize unconscious bias so that everyone can work together without prejudice.


Daphne Magna, our founder, helps various firms of different sizes improve their cross-cultural communications and create an inclusive culture. She focuses on topics like anti-Black racism, inclusive leadership, and cultural intelligence.

Ready to address biases? Register today for our Monthly Tough Convos.