Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

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.

More related to this story

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Single page

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories