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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 ...

Ray Hobbs, an 1812 researcher and honorary colonel of the 41st Regiment of Foot Military Living History Group, describes to the symposium a divided province quite different from the united-we-stand message the war now generates. Dissent and dissatisfaction with the Tory-dominated status quo was rife, and hand-to-mouth farmers did their best to avoid war duty and steer clear of rattled authorities, who saw treason everywhere among the recently arrived Americans, dissenting Methodists and rebellious Irish. Dr. Hobbs cites a wealthy Loyalist who resigned as a militia captain because he “does not like to get the ill will of his neighbours by getting them to do their duty.”

That trepidation was no match for the war's propagandists. But the Canadianizing of Canada had less to do with loyalty to the Crown than with a reaction to the blundering aggression of the invaders, who duped themselves into thinking they were liberating their not-yet-Canadian brethren.

“There's a whole lot more nationalism today than there was then,” says Prof. Taylor, a historian at the University of California, Davis. “To the Americans who moved to Upper Canada, it didn't much matter whether they were under the rule of a republic or a British monarchy, as long as they could get good cheap land and a light tax burden.”

The Republican politicians who led the United States into the war were greedy for territory and the riches it would bring. But their Federalist rivals in New England were much more live-and-let-live about their look-alike Canadian neighbours. Similarly, the Americans who had taken up the British offer to farm in Canada, Prof. Taylor adds, were much more equivocal about taking sides.

“Essentially their feeling about the invaders was, ‘Why should we help you guys? What can you give us that we don't already have?' So they waver back and forth. When it looks like the Americans might win, some of them think it's a good idea to be on the winning side. And when the Americans are clearly losing, then there's the feeling that ‘these Americans came in and stirred up a lot of trouble and made our lives harder, not easier. And therefore we ought to fight against them.' And that's the conclusion most of these Upper Canadians reach by the end of the war. Invaders take your crops, your animals, threaten your family, and you become Canadian.”

The invasion clarifies a wavering sense of identity by forcing a choice. And so we began the long tradition of defining ourselves as the people we are not.

“Canadians take that for granted now,” Prof. Taylor says, “but the concept didn't exist before the War of 1812.”

After the war, mythmakers nervous about the Americanizing of Canada preferred a different narrative. Ms. Young's study of the celebrations 100 years ago shows a country struggling to define its independence: Colonial history and North American geography could not yet be reconciled.

“It was very much a pro-British event, especially at Queenston Heights,” she says. “The people running the celebrations were historical groups that based their identity and their status on being the descendants of Loyalists and being pro-Empire. At the time, there was a lot of debate about where Canada should go: Should we solidify the British connection or seek closer ties with the United States?”

Some debates never end. But if commemoration is based on the good that came of 1812, then there should be no debate at all: Three years of fighting gave way to 200 years of peace.

“It's a war created by illusions,” Prof. Taylor says, “starting with the illusion that you can't have another as your neighbour and be safe. And the great achievement of the war is the realization that you don't need to conquer the other side in order to have a secure border. As a consequence, there's never been a full-scale war between our countries again, because people learned that there was nothing to be gained that would be worth the enormous losses of life and money that war would entail.”

That's not the norm in human history, and certainly not the lesson learned from the parallel carnage in Europe. But it's hard to celebrate what didn't happen, the absence of war that the War of 1812 produced, the 200-year nothingness that Canadians and Americans alike so easily take for granted. This blessed indifference, in its own sweet way, is the war's best outcome.

John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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