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Harper's 1812 overture: Study shows Canadians unfamiliar with war's details

A program officer at Fort York leads a tour the Toronto historic site, which was key outpost in the War of 1812.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Harper government is devoting millions of dollars to commemorating the War of 1812, but a survey conducted for Ottawa shows Canadians know relatively little about the conflict.

The research also found that eagerness to learn more about the 200-year-old war declines outside Ontario, where a significant number of the battles took place.

"Respondents may be aware of the War of 1812, but their knowledge of key countries, historical figures and sites involved is limited," says a June, 2011, study prepared for the Department of Canadian Heritage.

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"There is interest in learning more about certain aspects of the war, such as key facts, figures and sites, but this interest tends to be largely concentrated in Ontario," the report by TNS Canadian Facts says.

The war, which lasted until 1814, saw the inhabitants of what is now Canada turn back an American invasion and is considered a formative event in this country's history. Both the White House and early Parliament buildings in Upper Canada were put to the torch.

Only 14 per cent of those interviewed for the Department of Canadian Heritage were able to correctly identify the three countries involved. While Canada was not yet a sovereign nation at the time, the responses researchers were looking for were: Great Britain, the United States and Canada.

Twenty per cent of respondents incorrectly suggested France also participated in the conflict, and 14 per cent said they did not know, or refused to answer. Others erroneously suggested Japan or Russia or Spain played a part.

Nearly seven out of 10 respondents said they had heard of the War of 1812, but that rate dropped to six in 10 for those between 25 and 34 years of age.

A Harper government official, who spoke only on the condition he not be identified, said the goal of Ottawa's 1812 overture will be to show Canadians why the war mattered.

"The report proves that the war, while being a seminal event, may not be something that a lot of Canadians recognize or understand," the official said.

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The survey was based on online interviews last March with 1,835 Canadians aged 17 years and older.

It cautions that enthusiasm for the subject is weaker among younger Canadians and those outside Ontario.

"Awareness, interest in, and knowledge of the war is largely regional and age-dependent. It is highest in Ontario and dissipates as one ventures further away, both west and east," the report says. "Interest … is much lower in Quebec, among francophones and younger Canadians."

The Conservatives are launching a major drive to commemorate the conflict in 2012 and beyond – in keeping with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's penchant for making heroism in Canada's military history a more important feature of the country's national identity.

The Tories even made an ambitious 1812 observance part of their winning 2011 election platform. The total budget has not been announced, although close to $12-million has been earmarked for grants and contributions to relive the conflict.

Three in ten Canadians surveyed strongly agreed that the war was an important chapter in the history of Canada, while another four in 10, or 38 per cent, somewhat agreed.

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Close to 40 per cent of those who said they had heard of the war were nonetheless unable to identify a single historical figure, even when shown a list of possible players.

One-third of respondents picked both Laura Secord, a United Empire Loyalist who warned British forces of a U.S. attack, and Isaac Brock, a military hero killed in the conflict.

Only one of the 1,835 respondents correctly identified all six of the historical figures from a list.

Just under six of 10 of those who said they'd heard of the war were able to correctly identify at least one of the historical sites of the war when presented with a list of eight possibilities. Only eight of the 1,835 people surveyed were able to select all the right sites, such as Queenston Heights.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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