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A frame grab from the minute-long movie-trailer-style ad that Ottawa hoped would promote awareness of the anniversary of the War of 1812.
A frame grab from the minute-long movie-trailer-style ad that Ottawa hoped would promote awareness of the anniversary of the War of 1812.

WAR OF 1812

‘Little-known war’ of 1812 a big deal for Ottawa Add to ...

The Harper government looked to Sylvester Stallone for inspiration when it tried to overcome Canadians’ apathy and ignorance about the War of 1812, and the movie-trailer-style commercial it funded to celebrate the bicentennial was heavily micromanaged by senior players in Ottawa, documents show.

It’s further evidence of of how serious a political imperative the remembrance of the 200-year-old conflict is for the Harper Conservatives, who have sought to give military exploits a greater role in Canada’s identity.

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The one-minute “Fight For Canada” ad is more Jerry Bruckheimer than Canadian Heritage Moment and features battle closeups, war drums and pride at how inhabitants of Canada repelled an American invasion. Commemoration of the 32-month war continues Saturday with the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York in Toronto, an episode in the conflict where American troops overran part of what is present-day Toronto.

The commercial was designed, like a trailer, to leave viewers hungering for more -- in this case, the government hoped, to learn more about this “little known war.” The fast pacing, dramatic buildup and shots of the “climax of the battle”in this “this little known war” were tailored to copy the structure of movie trailer’s such as Mr. Stallone’s 2010 action film The Expendables, the ad agency in charge told the Heritage Department.

Don’t turn her into Red Riding hood

Laura Secord, whom many Canadians today associate with a chocolatier, is the highest profile heroine in the 1812 saga – best known for trekking more than 30 kilometres in 1813 to warn British forces of a coming American attack.

Records obtained under access to information law show the senior echelons of the federal government took a particularly close interest in how Secord was portrayed in the 1812 ad.

In a series of e-mail exchanges last year, Canadian Heritage bureaucrats informed the advertising agency supervising the trailer that the “Centre” feels Ms. Secord’s dress is too drab. The “Centre” is short-form in Ottawa for the Prime Minister’s Office or the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm that carries out the PMO’s wishes.

“The Centre asks if Laura Secord’s costume could have a little more colour,” the Heritage bureaucrat writes. She points out that the project does not have all the approvals needed from the minster and the “Centre” and adds it would be helpful if she can tell the PCO that Laura Secord “can be more colourful.”

The ad agency replies by saying that they used a Canada Post stamp featuring the 1812 heroine as the basis for their Secord costume. It notes the stamp shows her wearing an orange-coloured cape that “gives her a bit of colour.”

The agency cautions against going overboard, saying it tried to make Secord’s dress faithful to the few pictures that exist of what women wore between 1812 and 1814, the period of the war. “We need to avoid making her look like Little Red Riding Hood!”

The Centre’s fixation on Secord’s costume persists for weeks. Even after all other approvals have been granted, a Privy Council Office staffer writes the Heritage Department to complain about the heroine’s cape. “After reflection and consultation, the fabric (velvet) and the colour orange does not do the trick.”

The smallest details didn’t escape the Centre’s gaze. Even after they have given up trying to dress Secord in a more colourful outfit, the PCO dictates to Heritage the exact specifications for the heroine’s cape. “No two-tone velour! Brown exterior and beige interior,” a PCO official writes.

Missing in action: black soldiers

With the clock ticking down to a shooting date, the Centre weighs in with a last-minute question: Where are the black soldiers in the trailer?

“Urgent: can you ask Heritage why they were no black [people] in the British Army cast? Apparently there were some. This needs to be addressed,” a senior PCO official writes.

Two historians are consulted. One says the number of participants of African descent in the War of 1812 may have been as high as 1 per cent. “There were five black soldiers in the Glengarry Light Infantry out of a total of several hundred,” he explains. “The 104th Regiment had a black drummer and perhaps other black musicians and ... but the line infantry was all of European stock.”

A Heritage bureaucrat argues against changing the cast. “I think if we include one black soldier in a group of 10 it would look like 10 per cent of soldiers were black and I don’t think that was the case.”

Another Heritage civil servant tells PCO: “There were black militiamen in Upper Canada but these men were without uniforms.”

The Centre backs off. One senior PCO staffer rationalizes this, saying: “We are only showing a portion of the battle. We can presume there are more soldiers, black or not, on the ground.”

Everyone’s a critic

In the trailer, U.S. warships hover off the coast of Upper Canada, thanks to the wizardry of computer graphics.

The PCO is unimpressed, writing Heritage to complain that the sailing ships aren’t lifelike enough. “With no movement in the sails they seem too fake as static images,” a senior analyst writes.

“Can they come to life somehow with the production team’s 3D magic?”

The Heritage Department disagrees. “From what I saw even the flag was waving and don’t forget the ships are parked on a fairly quiet lake so not sure if the sails are really supposed to move ... and I’m not sure that we’ll see a difference in a 2 second shot.”

Undeterred, the Centre pushes back. “With regards to the ships being parked, I’m being asked if the sails should be down then?”

The final trailer version shows the ships with frantically billowing sails.

Follow us on Twitter: @danlebla, @stevenchase

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