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New ‘Heritage Minute’ highlights former slave who fought in War of 1812

Screen grab from new 'Heritage Minute' highlighting life of Richard Pierpont.

Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore is shining the spotlight on a lesser-known story about the War of 1812: a former U.S. slave who petitioned the British to let him join the fight against U.S. invaders.

The new "Heritage Minute" short, produced for the Historica-Dominion Institute, focuses on the story of Richard Pierpoint and is being screened for Mr. Moore in Vancouver Friday.

It's the first new Heritage Minute to be released in seven years. The historical shorts are familiar to a generation of Canadians who grew up watching them on TV.

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Mr. Pierpoint, originally born in Bondu (now Senegal) won his emancipation by fighting for a British regiment of Loyalists called Butler's Rangers.

He settled in the Niagara region after 1783 but when war broke out in 1812 he pleaded with the British military to create an "all-black unit."

Mr. Pierpoint sold the reluctant British military brass on the idea only after he produced a list of men in the region who had sworn to fight.

The moving short shows a British officer rejecting Mr. Pierpoint, telling him as an old man he should go farm the land he was given and "Leave the Americans to us."

The 68-year-old tells the officer he fought with the British during the American Revolution and reminds him that should the United States win, his freedom would be in jeopardy.

"With respect sir, I was born a free man and I intend to die one," Mr. Pierpoint tells the British officer.

"Your officers fight for land and money. I fight for my freedom."

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A second new Heritage Minute – on the contribution of John Norton and Grand River warriors at the famous Battle of Queenston Heights -- will be released in June, 2013.

The War of 1812 saw the inhabitants of what is now Canada frustrate American attempts to overrun their territory, although British troops arguably did much of the work.

Canada, of course, peacefully achieved independence from Britain, but the Conservatives are using this year's 1812 bicentennial to demonstrate how a struggle pivotal to this country's destiny took place half a century earlier.

For instance, the treaty ending the war confirmed the border between the United States and what would later become Canada.

Ignorance and, to some extent, apathy may be the biggest obstacles for the Conservatives as they try to drum up interest in the 200-year-old war.

A 2011 survey conducted for Ottawa found Canadians know relatively little about the conflict, and eagerness to learn more about it drops off outside Ontario, where a significant number of the battles took place.

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