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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 ...

Seeking to buff up our sense of tradition, the Harper government has deliberately turned back time by making our navy Royal and adorning our embassies with portraits of Her Majesty. In that light, the 1812 commemorations have the power to strengthen at least one model of what it means to be Canadian by reawakening the glories of the past.

But whose past?

“Had the war ended differently, had the American invasion not been repelled, Canada as we know it would not exist.” It's hard to contradict the defiant syllogism of Heritage Minister James Moore as he announced his government's commemoration plans at Fort George, a reconstruction of the British army headquarters along the contentious Niagara River that the Americans captured in 1813.

The simplest way to make the war meaningful is to describe it as a triumph of national character where Canadians fought off the Americans – and gained a great victory, you might as well add if you're playing to the crowd.

The reality is murkier. Canadians weren't yet Canadians. The term was still applied mostly to francophones, and when Upper Canada was created in 1791 – a mere eight years after the U.S. War of Independence ended – it was designed more as a bulwark against the American expansionists than a statement of New World identity.

When the war began, the typical Upper Canadian was a newly arrived American lured by cheap land and low taxes more than by an anachronistic desire to be our valiant forebears. So the war against the Yanks was fought largely by British regular army and native allies from both sides of the porous border – though the boast that local militias led the way against the invaders was being made almost from the beginning. Much debunked, it still thrives for obvious reasons: pride and politics.

The political differences that provoked the fighting were potent and undeniable. The British had been blocking U.S. shipping from reaching French ports during the Napoleonic Wars and essentially kidnapped American sailors to feed the insatiable manpower needs of their ships. The Americans, for their part, were threatening to drive the British out of North America and claim territory they believed was rightfully theirs. Britain's alliances with native tribes that resisted American land grabs raised tensions even higher.

And yet, when the enemies went to war, it was all too clear that the two sides had much in common. When British officer John Le Couteur is sent to parley with the Americans in 1813, he is compelled to observe a disturbing and lingering truth: “How uncomfortably like a civil war it seemed when we were in good-humoured friendly converse.” For a young lieutenant mingling with the supposed enemy on the Niagara frontier, shooting game birds in quieter moments was “much pleasanter sport ... than shooting one's own kindred.”

“The idea of the border was an artificial creation,” Major Grodzinski says. “There was considerable shared contact and trade, and civilians got upset when the borders were closed. So you get these situations where the military leaders insist that war has to stop everything, and people on the American side are saying, ‘Wait a second, I have dinner every Sunday with my friend up in Prescott.'”

Alan Taylor, author of The Civil War of 1812, points out the example of David Parish, a wealthy merchant and land speculator in Ogdensburg, N.Y. (across the St. Lawrence from Prescott), who helped to finance the U.S. war effort in exchange for a promise that his territory would be left in mercantile peace. To an entrepreneurial American and his Upper Canadian associates, business was more important than war's bombastic claims to greatness.

The peace treaty that finally settled the dispute in 1814 was negotiated in Belgium between the British and Americans, without a Canadian representative. And since it effectively restored the status quo, the war ended as it began – a stalemate, at least in territorial terms. A few weeks later, before peace was ratified, the Americans defeated the British at New Orleans, allowing them to feel victorious in their best, it-ain't-over-till-it's-over mentality.

Which was just as well. The would-be North American superpower had fought on the cheap, flaunting a low-tax mentality at odds with military adventurism, and was almost broke. Had the British cared more about Canada, they could have driven a much harder bargain.

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