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Re-enactor Les Szabo, of Orangeville, Ont., a gunsmith, at the War of 1812 Bicentennial Symposium at the University of Guelph. (iPhone Hipstamatic image) (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Re-enactor Les Szabo, of Orangeville, Ont., a gunsmith, at the War of 1812 Bicentennial Symposium at the University of Guelph. (iPhone Hipstamatic image) (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

The myth of 1812: How Canadians see the war we want to see Add to ...

Some wars never end.

Two hundred years ago this June, the still-new nation of the United States reopened hostilities against its bothersome British adversaries, and the War of 1812 began its long march into Canadian history.

On a bitingly cold, sleet-filled Saturday in a city newly famous as the epicentre of an emerging robo-call scandal, Glendon Hovey is dressed for an older and more patriotic kind of conflict – one designed to make Canadians feel good about themselves, if Ottawa's $28-million, three-year bicentennial commemorations go according to plan.

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In the crowded atrium of a University of Guelph lecture-hall complex, which today is playing the part of an 1812 marketplace, the former policeman turned period-dress tailor fits right in with his 19th-century seaman's rig: a brass-buttoned wool jacket, relaxed-fit hemp breeches, a form-fitting Monmouth cap designed to stave off wind and rain, and a dandyish silk kerchief that, he promises with his best naval-warfare sales pitch, “doubles as a do-rag, mopping up the sweat or the blood when you're in heavy action.”

Arrayed around him are red-coated soldiers, bespectacled grandees in top hats, gunsmiths tinkering with their muskets and gentleladies dressed in their Regency best, equally ready to serve tea and scones or tread nimbly across the Upper Canada swampland to warn British officers that the Americans are coming.

They have joined forces in Guelph, roughly equidistant from the major Canadian battlefields, for a consciousness-raising symposium on the war – a gathering made far less academic by the bustling market where 1812 enthusiasts stock up on sabres, cartridge boxes, canvas tents, Coalport coffee cups, quill pens and anything else they will need to refight the war and relive the peace in the coming festivities.

“The next three years are going to be very busy,” says David Fulton, a Toronto graphic artist and dedicated 1812 foot soldier who has just bought a $75 felt top hat from Mr. Hovey's Sew Authentic stall so he can expand his re-enactment repertoire.

These period-perfect role players have done their utmost to keep 1812 alive and prevent a future-facing culture from consigning whatever passes for collective memory to the dustbin of history. And now their vivid theatricality has endeared them to a government that likes to get on war's good side: They're an essential part of an ambitious project to revive and reclaim a colonial conflict that many Canadians know little about.

Over the next three years, the assorted battles and skirmishes and plunderings and pillagings that make up this motley counterpart to the Old World's more grandiose Napoleonic Wars will be celebrated as a leading story in Canada's creation myth.

“The war was the beginning of the process that led to Confederation,” says Major John Grodzinski, professor of history at Royal Military College, the Canadian Forces' officer-training academy. “In the face of a common foe, the provinces of British North America developed a sense of similarity, and realized they had shared ideas and values.”

Sir Isaac Brock led English Canada and its native allies to victory at Queenston Heights in 1812. Charles de Salaberry did the same for French Canada at Chateauguay, near Montreal, in 1813. War brought us together and made us who we are. It's a message that resonates with Stephen Harper's Conservative government, which has pledged funds to help restage battles, restore war-related sites, honour military units, create a permanent memorial to the conflict in Ottawa and generally reawaken pride in our ancestral fighting spirit – a peculiar brand of bellicosity said to have produced two centuries of productive co-existence with our invaders and a seemingly permanent allegiance to a foreign monarch under whose standard we fought way back when.

The official commemoration of the 1812 bicentennial is highly political – not that there's anything new about that. The war's centenary in 1912 was celebrated with a strong pro-British slant that reflected the strategy of a recently elected Conservative government opposed to trade reciprocity with the United States.

History is once again there for the taking in the Conservatives' eyes, a perfect confection of flag-waving patriotism, swaggering belligerence, old-fashioned loyalty and long-gun longings. “The War of 1812 is being heavily promoted as part of our military heritage,” says Elaine Young, a University of Guelph researcher who studies historical commemoration. “Canadians have long had trouble defining themselves, and so there's a search for the good old days of national unity when we all came together.”

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