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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 ...

Alexander Macdonell, the Catholic bishop for Upper Canada, warned after the war that Canada needed to subsidize a great wave of Scottish immigration if it was to guard against the “contagion of democracy.”

The government was soon paying cashiered soldiers from the Napoleonic wars and bankrupt but loyal English farmers to make the crossing. It worked, in a sense: The American-born, who were a majority in 1812, had fallen to only 7 per cent of the population by 1842.

But that pointed to the second development: We became a nation that repelled, rather than attracted, the most ambitious and desirable immigrants.

Whereas before the war, Upper Canada founder John Graves Simcoe had recognized that people from the British Isles would be flooding to the huge ports of Boston and Manhattan, and had encouraged those new Americans to come north to join the expansive new Canadian settlements, the post-1812 administration banned Americans from entering.

Those who had lived here for decades had to swear an oath of allegiance – and the authorities made it increasingly difficult to do so.

People simply stayed away. British emigrants, whatever their loyalties, had little interest in coming to a country that forced them to adopt a singular ideology and participate in a choked-off economy.

As a result, Canada missed most of the 19th-century European emigration boom. From 1851 to 1900, Canada attracted 734,900 immigrants from England, Wales and Scotland, while more than 3.1 million headed to the United States.

It was worse than that: A large proportion of those who came to Canada, often through government-subsidized recruitment programs, were simply waiting to head south. During that same half-century, 866,000 more people emigrated from Canada (mainly to the United States) than immigrated to it. Only in the Laurier era in the next century, when we began to attract non-British immigrants, did people choose to stay.

Third, the idea of an individualistic, entrepreneurial, industrially adventurous economy became alien and undesirable. The hewing of wood, the drawing of water and the selling of furs may been the origins of Canada, but the post-1812 rulers turned them into an unavoidable fate.

The colonial administrators of Upper and Lower Canada, and later the prime ministers of the Dominion of Canada, made it clear over and over, right through the 19th century, that they favoured an agrarian, resource-based model of development.

Because we had imported a population composed largely of middle managers, loyal followers and acquiescent farmers, we had the right people for this.

And in the years after 1812, we forged the institutions to make it happen.

Canada studiously avoided introducing mass public education, even at the primary-school level, until well into the 1840s, lest it spread American ideas. And, as part of the post-1812 cauterization of the border, it banished the idea of separating church and state, instead making the Anglican and Catholic faiths almost mandatory – their leaders were granted one-seventh of all land that hadn’t already been surveyed.

Before the war, Methodist and Baptist preachers from the United States had promoted a distinctly North American individ- ualism, built on a personal witness before God, that had become the most popular form of worship among newly settled Canadians.

Afterward, Canada rigidly enforced the much more hierarchical, acquiescent forms of worship by making Anglicanism and Catholicism de facto established religions and blocking U.S. preachers from crossing the border.

This, too, came to define the difference between Canada and the U.S., and played a big role in shaping the Canadian view of the world.


Rewriting history covered up the truth

By the time my grandmother’s grandmother was middle-aged and the terror of armed rebellion was far behind her, all of this had come to seem natural, and Canada’s history books had been written to make it sound like destiny. But her world view, the one that overtook Canada, was almost entirely the product of an over-zealous moment of victory.

During that moment, Bishop John Strachan, the Anglican firebrand who did so much to shape the post-1812 Canada, declared that the war had distinguished “our friends from our foes, and rid us of all those traitors and false friends whom a short-sighted and mistaken policy had introduced among us.”

The victory had indeed allowed Canada to purge itself of a great many people, institutions, ideas and possibilities. In three years of bloody fighting we had successfully secured our border – and then, for a century after, used it to keep the sunlight out. Two centuries later, we are still feeling the effects.


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