Turkey. Stuffing. Cranberry sauce. For many Canadian families, these are cozy emblems of an annual Thanksgiving tradition. For a great number of recent immigrant families, though, that tradition represents a part of Canada still unfamiliar. Share Thanksgiving aims to bridge that gap, connecting new Canadians with established families to break bread and give thanks.
Share Thanksgiving was launched in Toronto in 2012 by Engineers Without Borders Canada co-founder Parker Mitchell. The impetus was simple: Mr. Mitchell had spent much of the previous year travelling and wanted to replicate the generosity he'd experienced in homes abroad.
“The feeling of being welcomed in a country that's not our own, that was what inspired us to bring this to Canada,” says Robyn Chatwin-Davies, Canadian director of Share Thanksgiving and the muscle behind the organization's expansion to seven new cities from coast to coast.
Where 100 families were joined in last year's pilot initiative, this year's Thanksgiving match-up is poised to reach 1,000. Its original target was 500.
“We're getting 50 to 100 signups per day,” says Ms. Chatwin-Davies, who credits social media word-of-mouth for aiding the process.
Toronto’s Dallas Bergen is one of this year's first-time Share Thanksgiving hosts. After learning about the program through Facebook last year, he “made it a priority” to get involved in 2013. While he doesn't know many specific details about the family he will be having over for dinner, he knows they're from Uzbekistan and have two toddlers.
“Which will be great, because we’ve got a two-year-old daughter as well,” says Mr. Bergen. “So we’re looking forward to making a connection with that family.”
Mr. Bergen sees Thanksgiving as an especially meaningful holiday in that it invites the opportunity to reflect on the year while also recognizing, and celebrating, the patterns of migration that have formed the Canadian fabric. His own wife is an immigrant from Israel.
“Intercultural exchange is something that’s really important to me, and I think we can make a great difference in the life of a new Canadian family by giving them that connection,” he says.
While it may seem a small gesture, being invited into the home of an established Canadian family can bear great meaning for new arrivals still sussing out their place in the Canadian cultural framework. An estimated 1.2 million people immigrated to Canada between 2006 and 2011, according to Statistics Canada. One in five people in the country are foreign born.
Asenec Gil, who moved to Toronto from the Dominican Republic with her husband, Renniel, in 2011, describes her experience with Share Thanksgiving last year as a “second welcome to Canada.”
“You feel like you belong to the city and have the same traditions as Canadians,” she says of her inaugural Thanksgiving dinner's emotional impact. “We feel part of the country.” Her husband still keeps in touch with their host, who was none other than Parker Mitchell.
The symbolic heft of the holiday is something Milly Nalwanga can also relate to. Though she and her husband Roy Amooti both moved to Canada from Uganda in 2006, it wasn't until last year that anyone had extended an invitation to celebrate Thanksgiving. She says she'd always felt a little left out of the festivities – the holiday went uncelebrated, a day like every other. So, when she learned about Share Thanksgiving from a community outreach site, she knew it was worth a try. The experience moved her.
“We felt included, we felt loved,” Ms. Nalwanga says. “I felt like I was part of Canada. I wasn't lost.”
Melissa Jones, who hosted Ms. Nalwanga, Mr. Amooti and their children, along with her husband and son, also speaks fondly of the experience.
“They said to us that they'd never had such a good meal since they moved to Canada!” Ms. Jones says proudly, remembering the family's reactions to the traditional Thanksgiving feast her husband had prepared. Since then, the families have kept in touch, and Ms. Jones and her husband hope to repeat the experience with a new family next year.
Ms. Nalwanga harbours similar goals. “I feel that, being a Canadian now, I should also share Thanksgiving with a new Canadian.”