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The only known surviving copy of an 1814 poster listing those convicted of treason during the Ancaster Assize as well as those who were outlawed, but not captured, for serving with U.S. forces and those who forfeited their property. (Archives of Ontario)
The only known surviving copy of an 1814 poster listing those convicted of treason during the Ancaster Assize as well as those who were outlawed, but not captured, for serving with U.S. forces and those who forfeited their property. (Archives of Ontario)

WAR OF 1812

My ancestors and the worst thing that has ever happened to this country Add to ...

I can’t find records of any of them having fought in the war, and that’s not surprising: In 1812, the colonial authorities were shocked to discover that almost nobody wanted to enlist and that most of their subjects were either disinterested in or hostile to the war.

The vast majority of Upper Canada’s 100,000 citizens were immigrants from the United States, only perhaps 7,000 of them the mythic United Empire Loyalists (who had fled the American Revolution out of British affinity), the rest only interested in peace, order and a chunk of prime Ontario farmland.

That’s why the redcoats enlisted the Six Nations to help fight in 1812: not out of any concern for native rights (as the bands would tragically learn after the war), but out of desperation.

Three years of cross-border raids, blockades and bloody battles changed things forever. My forebears were given their first harsh dose of this in the summer of 1814, when the war, in its final months, turned inward.

My family seat of Ancaster, east of Brantford just outside Hamilton. played host to the Bloody Assize, in which 19 area residents were charged with high treason (in some cases for little more than holding the wrong ideas). Fifteen of them had the dubious honour of being the last people in the British Empire sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered – that is, disembowelled with hot pokers.

In the end, only eight were executed, and by the slightly less horrid means of slow hanging – but the message would endure, and those executions would set the tone. Canada was now a defensive place where dissenting ideas, and the people who held them, would not be tolerated.

What the heroic British colonel Sir John Le Couteur called “a hot and unnatural war between kindred people” had ended that natural kinship between northern Americans and Canadians – in large part because the Canadians decided to abandon the fast-expanding North American culture and then retreat into an agrarian, colonial netherworld for a century.

“Compared to the dynamic United States, Upper Canada seemed a sleepy rural backwater” in the decades after the war, historian Alan Taylor writes in his excellent The Civil War of 1812. He quotes physician John Howison, who in the 1820s looked across from his farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake to New York: “There,” he wrote, “bustle, improvement and animation fill every street; here dullness, decay and apathy discourage enterprise and repress exertion.”

This was the result of deliberate policies, carried out as part of the colonial administration’s victory dance, designed to prevent Canada from becoming anything like the United States – either in population, in culture, or in economic success. They were, to a huge degree, successful.


Democracy suddenly becomes a curse

Three things took place during those tense postwar years that would permanently alter the shape and nature of Canada.

First, we became a country opposed to the “American” notions of democracy, popular sovereignty and church-state separation. Democracy became a curse: In the years after the war, Edward Baynes, another British colonel, warned of “the American interloper industriously undermining the fidelity of his neighbours by disseminating democracy.”

By the 1830s, lieutenant-governor Francis Bond Head was declaring a “moral war … between those who were for British institutions, against those who were for soiling the empire by the introduction of democracy.”

This would continue through the century: John A. Macdonald was an outspoken opponent of democracy and prevented Canadians who didn’t own property from being able to vote – something they would achieve only at the very end of the 19th century, almost 80 years later than in the United States. We distinguished ourselves through our distrust of our own people.

This was by no means inevitable. In the years right after 1812, those democratic and entrepreneurial ideas seemed to have the support of a majority of Upper Canadians.

“The events of the war,” historian Colin Read wrote, “demonstrated that a significant portion of the province’s approximately one hundred thousand inhabitants were either indifferent or hostile to the British cause … how to purge the province of this lamentable pro-American element was clearly a major question, then.”

The solution, our leaders decided, was to import people who were loyal – not inventive or talented or ambitious, but loyal.

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