The War of 1812 coming to a town near you…

Toula Foscolos
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If you happen to casually stroll by the Fort Chambly National Historical Site this summer and find yourself in the middle of musket-wielding soldiers dressed in period uniforms celebrating a Canadian victory, don’t be alarmed. It’s summer of 2012 so somewhere in Canada there’s bound to be a historical re-enactment, a museum exhibit, a new national monument being unveiled, heck… there’s even a mobile app being introduced, commemorating that momentous and quintessentially Canadian moment; the War of 1812.

Toula Foscolos

You don’t know I’m talking about? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. While Harper may indeed be touting it as the epic Canadian victory, the first step towards Confederation, and the beginning of our long and proud military history (his words, not mine), the average Canadian (and American) sees it as a little-known three-year war that consisted of nothing more than some incompetently planned battles, which ended in a stalemate and resulted in neither side really gaining or losing any territory. Yawn.

Not so fast, though. The facts are still quite interesting. The War of 1812 was essentially a military conflict fought between the United States and the British Empire. In an attempt to exert pressure on the British Empire, the Americans decided it would be strategic (and easy) to invade Canada.

“The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching,” wrote Thomas Jefferson at the time, proving that even the main man behind the Declaration of Independence and one of the best presidents the U.S. has ever known can occasionally make mistakes.

Americans believed that many in Upper Canada would rise up and greet a United States invading army as liberators, which, of course, did not happen. Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil, right America?

Invasions were largely perceived by Canadians as an annexation attempt by America seeking to expand U.S. territory, but in reality the war has been documented by most historians to have simply been nothing more than a bargaining chip. Long story short, while the War of 1812 doesn’t generate much interest on a daily basis, it does hold some historical significance for Canadians and our neighbours south of the border. The British could care less, since it played out as an insignificant sideshow to the much larger war waging against Napoleon at the time in Europe.

A recent poll concluded that, “Americans see it as a war that produced their national anthem. Canadians see it as a war which saved them from American assimilation and preserved them from American politics, gun laws and shared citizenship with Snooki of the Jersey Shore.”  (John Ward - Globe and Mail)

That’s worth celebrating, right? Sure, but spending $28 million on a celebration is a tad much. After restoring the “royal” prefix to the navy and the air force, after lavish ceremonies to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, this is just one more way that Harper is choosing to spin his new brand of colonial-based, military-flavoured patriotism.

In “Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety”, a new book by author Jamie Swift and historian Ian McKay, the authors speak of how “[They] are attempting to establish war as the pith and essence of all Canadian history.” To do that, they have, in the words of the authors, to “conscript Canadian history” – that is, to glorify wars past and present. 

Let’s forget that $28 million is a crazy amount of money for someone to run around in a period costume, trying to re-enact Laura Secord warning the British troops of an impending American attack at the Battle of Beaver Dams. Let’s forget that Heritage Minister James Moore had the gall to call the amount “reasonable”, at a time when the government is (justifiably so) slashing spending. What I’d like to focus on is Moore’s declaration that it’s an essential role for government “to remind Canadians what unites us.”

My beef with these over-the-top celebrations (aside from the money spent) is that it’s not about teaching history. It’s about using history to justify and glorify spending more than we need on new jet planes and tankers.

What unites us?  I don’t believe that unbridled nationalism, unfettered flag waving and the unquestioning celebration and glorification of war is what unites Canada. It never has and I hope it never will.

Two hundred years later, what perhaps does unite us, is that agonized discussions are currently taking place on how to celebrate this victory without appearing too arrogant to our American neighbours. It’s rather endearing that a) we’re thinking about how to celebrate a military “victory” without offending one of the most overtly “in your face” patriotic nations in the world, and b) that we suffer from the sweet delusion that what we say or do even matters to our American brethren. Adorable…

My beef with these over-the-top celebrations (aside from the money spent) is that it’s not about teaching history. It’s about using history to justify and glorify spending more than we need on new jet planes and tankers.

I’m currently reading Noah Richler’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About War”, and while it’s clear which way Richler leans, the book remains thought provoking.  It’s an examination of how rhetoric shapes how Canadians thinks of themselves as a nation and Canada’s engagement in peacekeeping, war, and on the international stage.

Essentially, - and while I admit that it’s healthy for a nation to celebrate winning a war in which it maintained its political independence -  it’s not about making sure we remember our history and the moments that marked who we are as a nation, but perhaps choosing to focus on the moments that matter.

Years ago, I spent a few weeks hiking around the beautiful Bay of Fundy, in New Brunswick.  One sunny summer afternoon found me in Charlotte County, where the St. Croix River marks a section of the international boundary between the United States and Canada, forming a natural border between two towns. St. Stephen is on the Canadian border of the river bank, and Calais is on the U.S. side. They’re both connected by a bridge, and they have a long history of friendship.

During the War of 1812, the British military provided St. Stephen with a large supply of gunpowder for protection against the “enemy” Americans in Calais, but the town elders went ahead and gave the gunpowder to Calais for its… Fourth of July celebrations.

This is my kind of Canada. If it’s all the same to you, this is the kind of event I’d rather commemorate.


Organizations: British Empire, Globe and Mail, Battle of Beaver Dams

Geographic location: United States, Canada, Quebec Europe Jersey Shore Calais Bay of Fundy New Brunswick Charlotte St. Croix River

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