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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 ...

Since no Canadian forces were at New Orleans, the loss apparently doesn't count against us, so we're both winners. But just to reaffirm our desire to feel superior, we're the country pouring money into the commemorations, not the United States. The U.S. government has no formal plans to mark the occasion and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state was in the thick of the action, vetoed the creation of a bicentennial commission as a sign that the fiscally prudent have no time for historical remembrance.Tell that to the Canadian government, which has crowded its commemoration calendar over the next few years with, as well as 1812, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, the 200th anniversary of the Selkirk Settlement, the 200th birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald, the centenary of the Grey Cup and Vimy Ridge and the National Hockey League, the sesquicentennial of Confederation, the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe landings and even the 25th anniversary of free trade with the United States (possible sound bite: “Had the trade pact ended differently, had the American corporate invasion been repelled, Canada as we know it would not exist”).

The commemoration of past glories is a universal phenomenon, and the legacy of an old war is much more than just a nostalgic escape. “Without a shared history, we don't have a shared culture,” says Mr. Fulton, the graphic artist, adjusting his 19th-century spectacles (custom-made with titanium frames).

And yet 1812, in particular, resonates much more loudly on the Canadian side of the contended border than on the American. Or so thinks Tonya Staggs, an 1812 aficionado from Tennessee taking part in the Guelph symposium's war-era fashion show. “Canadians know much more about this period,” she says shortly after walking the lecture-hall runway in a figure-hugging, bright green, cotton chintz dress from 1810. “The most that Americans can tell you is that the British burned the White House and we won the Battle of New Orleans, which is very sad.”

Commemorating the war in Tennessee has proved a tough sell, even though Andrew Jackson, the future president who defeated the British at New Orleans, is a local hero.

“We seem to butt up against people trying to recreate Jane Austen movies,” Ms. Staggs says ruefully. “They all want to have Jane Austen tea parties.”

Meanwhile, in Canada, we seek our own feel-good moment by lavishing praise on Laura Secord for her dangerous cross-country trek to tell the British about a secret attack – while historians remain uncertain of what the Massachusetts-born Upper Canadian really accomplished.

Remembering is always going to be selective and partial, particularly when it comes to war. “Whenever I talk about the burning of the White House, there's always cheering in the class,” Major Grodzinski says.

But history prefers its lessons to be more complicated. As well as retaining their territory, the

Americans got The Star-Spangled Banner, composed during the unsuccessful British bombardment of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, while we were left with God Save the Queen – the status quo definition of a victory song.

Declaring ourselves winners further compels us to consider the fate of U.S. natives who saw the British as staunch supporters. Despite their fierce contribution – Major-General Isaac Brock's great success in capturing Fort Detroit in 1812 was in large part due to the Americans' terror of Tecumseh and his warriors, whose savagery the theatrical Brock played up – these trusting natives were big losers. The best we can now say is that it could have been worse. “Without the War of 1812, aboriginal Canadians would have suffered the same fate as American Indians,” Heritage Minister Moore told a parliamentary committee in December.

Tecumseh died far from home in the Battle of the Thames, near Chatham, Ont., shot while fearlessly protecting a British withdrawal. For Canadians, the Shawnee chief from the Ohio River territory was one of the war's heroes, and his fans in Guelph wore T-shirts imprinted with the stirring words he used to rally the tribes: “So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.”

We see the war we want to see, and overlook parts that don't conform. Civilian life in Upper Canada – real life, if you will – was far more unsettled and precarious than the patriotic narratives would suggest.

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