Canadians create COVID-era Thanksgiving traditions as cases climb, restrictions mount

Many Canadians are setting new Thanksgiving traditions as the COVID-19 pandemic downsizes family dinners, while some who are separated from their loved ones try to find other ways to be grateful.

As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic washes over the country, Canadians from coast to coast are being asked to limit the size of their Thanksgiving gatherings or keep them entirely virtual.

Canada’s chief public health officer said last week’s troubling surge in infections means that some guests may be missing from the Thanksgiving table.

But Dr. Theresa Tam said the best way for Canadians to show their gratitude this holiday is to keep each other safe by staying away from anyone outside their immediate circle.

“What is usually a special tradition for many Canadians, will serve as a hard reminder of how much we are sacrificing to protect ourselves, those we love and our communities,” Tam said in a statement Sunday.

“As difficult as it may be, we need to continue on the right path and recommit, for ourselves and our loved ones, to follow the public health practices that helped us flatten the curve in the spring.”

With daily case counts continuing to rise in some provinces, increased restrictions came into effect in several hot spots heading into the long weekend.

In Quebec, which reported 942 new cases Sunday, nearly every community along the St. Lawrence River is now considered a “red zone.” Premier Francois Legault has entreated Quebecers to put public health before the desire to host large holiday gatherings.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has urged people to stick to their immediate households, saying it’s too risky even to expand the celebration to the current indoor gathering limit of 10 people.

That message came as the province imposed harsher restrictions on the hard-hit areas of Toronto, Ottawa and Peel Region.  

Ontario reported 649 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, a significant dip from Friday’s all-time high of 939 new infections.

After the province notched that new record, Susan Torrie of Ottawa made the bittersweet decision to scrap her plans for an outdoor get-together with her brother’s family in favour of what she called a “Zoomsgiving.” 

Torrie said each household donned autumnal-themed outfits and plush-turkey hats, sitting down at their virtually extended table to share a meal and play board games.

“It wasn’t quite the same, but we felt like it was the very best we could do. And I think in its own way, it’s gonna be a really good memory of this.”

Madelaine Wight in Winnipeg said Zoom might become a fixture of future festivities as COVID-19 constraints forced her to find creative ways to mark her first Thanksgiving since getting sober.

In a normal year, Wight said she’d probably be sitting at her grandmother’s table to chow down on her family-famed turkey. But because she can’t safely see her grandparents, the 27-year-old said she’s cooking her first bird to mark the start of a “new tradition” with her children and her father.

And while pandemic precautions have distanced her from some relatives, Wight said Zoom has also allowed her to spend the holidays with family members as far away as Honduras.

“Now we can be a little bit closer together, and I (can see) family that wouldn’t have been necessarily a part of our meal.”

In some ways, Leanne Shaw feels the pandemic has shifted the focus of Thanksgiving away from familial obligation and allowed people to reconnect with the spirit of giving.

Shaw recently split from her husband and isn’t working while she raises four children, two of whom have been in the hospital in the last month. All she could afford for Thanksgiving dinner was a turkey, so she posted in a Toronto “caremongering” group to see if strangers would donate food to help her fill her family’s plates.

In a matter of hours, do-gooders had dropped off a full spread of supplies and side dishes, Shaw said.

“I call them my family,” she said. “I introduce (my kids) to the people when they come. Because I want them to know when they’re older, that if someone’s in need of help, and you’re in the position to help them, help them.”

Still, the pandemic is preventing many Canadians from sharing their gratitude with their loved ones this holiday.

Amanda Northrup wishes she was in Moncton, N.B., giving back to the community with the Humanity Project, a group she credits with giving her the strength to seek help for her addiction issues.

Northrup, 38, moved to Winnipeg early this year to seek treatment, and had planned on returning east to spend Thanksgiving volunteering with her chosen family.

But she said that’s not possible, between New Brunswick’s strict travel rules and her limited funds after being laid off in June.

Instead, she’s spending her first sober Thanksgiving alone. 

“I’m hungry, I’m lonely, and I’m sad,” Northrup said. “I’m thankful to still be here and I’m thankful to be clean. And even if I’m lonely I’m very thankful that I have a roof over my head.”

Even in the so-called “Atlantic bubble,” where case counts have been creeping upwards of late, officials are urging people to limit their gatherings.

New Brunswick reported 14 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, bringing the province’s active total to 71, while P.E.I. reported two new cases.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 11, 2020.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press