Commemorating The War of 1812

THERE IS a debate these days in the Canadian media over the Harper Government decision to spend a yet-undetermined sum (I’ve come across an amount of twelve or-so million dollars) commemorating the War of 1812. I expect the Americans will overlook this bit of their history, but I’m unable to imagine any Canadian government ignoring the two-hundred-year anniversary of a war that could have converted Upper and Lower Canada into the coldest states of the Union.

According to the official Government website announcing the initiative, “Canadians gave [the Harper Government] a strong mandate to celebrate important historical events”: in this instance a war which — again, from the Government’s website —

… helped establish Canada’s path toward becoming an independent and free country, united under the Crown, with respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity. Simply put, the War of 1812 helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we honour. Against great odds, it took the combined efforts of Canadians of all ancestries to repel the American invasion and defend Canada in a time of crisis.

A grand feel-good take on the conflict, and who could disagree? Jeffrey Simpson, for one, whose October 7 column (“Let’s not exalt the folly of 1812”) characterizes the war as horrible and stupid, and “among the dumbest ever fought.” Whether agreeing with this assessment or agreeing not, one should probably award points for the spot-on retort of Dorchester Review editor, C.P. Champion:

Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist at The Globe & Mail, thinks Canada should not celebrate the upcoming 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 because the conflict was “stupid” and “dumb,” with “bad leadership” and “messy battles.” If that is the standard, we had better forget celebrating much of our history. Get out your calendar and scratch off Remembrance Day, November 11. That date commemorates the allied victory in 1918 that marked the end of the First World War — a conflict that presumably fits Simpson’s definition of a stupid and messy war.

Good point, that. All wars are indeed irrational and vicious and stupid, even when necessary, their accomplishments invariably measured in the numbers of children turned into corpses and summoning to one’s mind these lines of Hamlet:

… to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain.

So the question remains, Why commemorate war in general, and the War of 1812 in particular?

Just over one week ago, journalist Steven Chase reported a Department of Canadian Heritage study showing in detail what we should already know, that most Canadians are unfamiliar with the details of the War of 1812 — the countries involved, the causes, the individuals who played prominent roles, the locations of battles, and so on. The figures are as a general rule appalling and culminate in the pronouncement that “only one of the 1,835 respondents correctly identified all six of the historical figures from a list.” Here one should put due emphasis on the cadence from a list, which tells us that the respondents probably didn’t know anything about Canada’s other historical events either, and therefore were unable to arrive at an answer by way of elimination. This state of collective amnesia is probably as good a reason as any to do some “commemorative” work, commemorate being a verb meaning “to bring to remembrance.”

I myself will not be celebrating this war, but not for the Jeffrey Simpson reasons. An honest and candid assessment of the period 1812-1814 will show that the war was started on false grounds, by American jingoists and super-patriots, as Simpson asserts. However, once started the people of Upper and Lower Canada had good reason to fight. Also, while the war was lost by the inept and over-confident Americans as much as it was won by the British and the Canadians and the Canadiens, the character and accomplishments of for example Major General Isaac Brock were what they were. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent confirmed the pre-war and indeed post-Revolution territories and borders of British North America and the United States, and while the Harper Government will tell you that peace followed as a result and ever since, the fact is that the Americans may well have accomplished at a later date what they could not accomplish in 1812-1814, had they not had a vast western (and southern) frontier to divert their attention and energy.

In other words, the legacy of the war was neither territorial nor geopolitical, but rather psychological. After 1814 the occupants of territories north of the 49th parallel were possessed of what is today termed “Canadian identity,” which may be summarized in the phrase not American. Although there has been peace between Canada and the US ever since 1814, suspicion and a vague condescension toward the Americans is a permanent feature of the Canadian psyche which goes back to the war. An early example of the Canadian apprehension of Uncle Sam — and of the Canadian habit of arriving at self-understanding by looking south — may be found in Thomas Haliburton’s 1836 novel The Clockmaker. In this work the satire cuts both ways, reflecting a deeper and uncomfortable awareness that Canada must either side with Britain or else be absorbed by America.

In the preceding paragraph I have stated that “after 1814 the occupants of territories north of the 49th parallel were possessed of what is today termed Canadian identity.” There is of course a large and important exception, the indigenous peoples of this land. One of the principal immediate causes of the war was the growing conflict between a brutal and expansionist settler population and its indigenous resistance, among whose most famous leaders in 1812 was Tecumseh. In the three decades leading up to 1812, the Haudenosaunee (like Tecumseh’s people, and indeed all indigenous groups) had been losing their land base at an alarming rate. The 1812 war offered an opportunity to extract concessions from Britain and Canada through military alliance, a strategy which had served the League in the past and might serve them again. It was a military alliance with Britain during the American Revolution which yielded to the Six Nations the Haldimand Tract, in Ontario, ninety-five percent of which would eventually revert to Canada through a combination of land sale, deception and outright theft. Not a promising record, but in 1812 military alliances still counted for something, and then as now there were things for which it was worth fighting.

As it happened, the War of 1812 marked the end of the historical era of British-Indian military alliances. With North American French-English and American-British rivalries for the most part settled, the provinces within a couple decades of the war’s conclusion were formulating a new Indian policy at the centre of which was assimilation and absorption of indigenous peoples into the “body politic.” Before the War of 1812, indigenous peoples were viewed by Canadian and American alike as dangerous enemies or military allies; after the war, they were increasingly viewed as a “problem” to be solved through extermination, domination, legislation and coercion. The war probably hastened what would have all the same occurred. Nonetheless, whatever victory Canada may justly claim, it is the case that to the indigenous people who fought alongside the British subjects, as to the later generations who would do the same, there fell none of the spoils.

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