The War of 1812 will be well worth commemorating, 200 years on. If the American invasion had been successful, Canada would at best had a very different shape from the one it has today; quite possibly, no such country would have had come into being at all.
James Moore, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, is right to say that the bicentennial “is an opportunity for all of us to take pride in our history.” That should not mean that it’s a time for self-congratulation. Of course, none of us were alive then, and the ancestors of the majority of living Canadians had not arrived. But Canadians today will be appreciate this country better if they understand that it did not simply leap into being because of a political deal in 1867, and indeed that there was human life here before the Charter of Rights and Freedom.
The War of 1812 was complex and messy, but the same is true of almost all wars. It was unusual, however, in its happy aftermath – not only the Treaty of Ghent, but the Rush-Bagot agreement of 1817, a remarkably thorough-going arms-control agreement (to use a 20th-century term) for the Great Lakes.
The fact that most of the Canadian part of the war took place in southern central Canada should not diminish its importance; it would not occur to Americans to regard the War of Independence or the Civil War as merely regional episodes because each was fought in a fairly small part of what is now the United States.
Some people are objecting to the federal government’s plan for a War of 1812 memorial in Ottawa, on the ground the war was not fought there. That is to miss the point. The city is the capital of Canada. What’s more, it was founded (under the name of Bytown) to provide against the danger of future wars with the United States. That is, Bytown was the northern end of the Rideau Canal, which was designed to be a water route that would be a safe alternative to the Saint Lawrence River – as urged by the Duke of Wellington himself.
The fact that Ottawa was never needed as a haven from southern invaders is not a ground for carping. It is all the more cause to commemorate the War of 1812 there, and throughout Canada.
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