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The Globe and Mail

War of 1812 celebrations an 'affront' to Ontario town's pacifist roots

Arnold Neufeldt-Fast of Tyndale Seminary is photographed in Stouffville, Ont. Wednesday, May 2/2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa is gearing up for the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, spending millions on projects like re-enactments and monuments, but some people aren't embracing the commemoration.

North of Toronto, in Stouffville, a group of people who belong to pacifist churches are asking their MP to tone down a June event tied to the bicentennial. They say it doesn't accurately reflect the history of the town, which was founded by Mennonites who conscientiously objected to war.

"It's an affront to a truthful telling of that history," said Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, a Mennonite ordained minister and associate academic dean at Tyndale Seminary.

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The pushback in Stouffville is part of a movement to tell another side of the war's story: those who didn't fight and were proud of it.

Mr. Neufeldt-Fast represented people from Stouffville's Mennonite, Quaker and Brethren in Christ churches when he spoke out against the bicentennial event at a council meeting earlier this week.

The town council voted 4-2 to approve Conservative MP Paul Calandra's plan for a traditional Freedom of the City military march to the town hall. His plan also includes a parade and a request for CF-18 fly-by.

Mr. Neufeldt-Fast said he's not opposed to commemorating the bicentennial of the war, which affected all of Upper Canada. What he's opposed to, he said, is the suggestion that the town's past is rooted in the military rather than pacifism. "It shows, actually, a degree of ignorance of our historical origins," he said.

But Mr. Calandra said the event doesn't challenge the history of the town. He said the Governor General's Horse Guards, the regiment participating in the Freedom of the City march, was partially based in the town for training in the 1950s.

"It's a celebration of the armed forces and all the things that they have done for us," he said. "It's also an opportunity for us to celebrate and recognize the War of 1812 and the local connection."

He said he was surprised that about 50 people were at the town meeting to oppose his proposition. "I think we can not only honour and respect the sacrifices and our successes of our armed forces of today but we can also, separately, honour and help people understand who founded the town," he said.

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He said the budget for the event, which is yet to be determined, is not coming from the $28-million that the government has allocated for bicentennial celebrations over the next three years.

A spokesman for Heritage Minister James Moore said that although the department did not have to approve funding, the minister supports Mr. Calandra's efforts.

Carol Penner, a pastor at the First Mennonite Church in Vineland, Ont., said the situation in Stouffville is "an interesting test case" in the response to pacifists who speak out about the bicentennial.

She's involved in running alternative bicentennial events that aim to draw attention to the experience of pacifists during the war. Plaques are being put up, and there will be a bike tour of significant Canadian locations.

Part of what swayed pacifists to move from the U.S. to Upper Canada was the Militia Act, which allowed people who could prove they belonged to peace churches to be exempt from war if they paid a tax, according to Laureen Harder-Gissing, the archivist for the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Ms. Penner said she won't be surprised if those aspects of the war's history aren't part of the government's events. "[The war]is an illustrious part of our military history… it raises the profile of the military at a time when the government is increasing military spending," she said.

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Clyde Smith, one of the two Stouffville councillors to vote against the bicentennial plan, said it was troubling to have to side either with his MP or the descendants of those who founded the community. Ideally, there would have been more time to find a compromise, he said, but that wasn't an option.

"We were forced to make a choice," he said. "I couldn't support an event that was going to be divisive and offend a large number of people in our community."

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