The uniform of General Isaac Brock. Brock was knighted for leading his Upper Canada troops to victory in the Battle of Detroit. He was shot and killed in this uniform at the Battle of Queenston Heights, another British victory. The uniform is on display at the Canadian War Museum. Photo: Library Playgound via Flickr.
To begin with a digression: the Jan-Feb 2012 issue of Canadian Geographic had what I thought was a fine article on a recent re-enactment of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm. Apparently, vendors at that event sold bumper stickers “War of 1812: been there, won that” – in Canadian and US versions. The actual battlefield was inundated in 1958, prior to the opening of the Seaway the following year. A substitute site exists nearby, adjacent to Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg, Ontario.
Interpretation, commemoration and flat-out marketing of war is nothing new. This frequently generates strong objections from those who despise the glorification of martial activity – like my activist mother. (I hear you, Mom. But for me, it’s not really about war, it’s the larger and fascinating topic of history!)
Philosophical attitudes aside, it’s a fact that 200 years ago in June a young and beleaguered United States declared war on Great Britain – and Canada (by extension).
While the question of “who won?” remains subject to interpretation, In Box readers live in the thick of where much of that war was contested.
Indeed, it’s almost certain Canada would have a different capital if not for that war. (Ottawa only became a contender thanks to the Rideau Canal. The canal was only built to remedy the vulnerability of sharing the St. Lawrence with the belligerent U.S.A.) It’s entirely possible Canada would have been swallowed up by the U.S. had things turned out differently. The outcome at modest little Crysler’s farm was crucial, according to reenactor Matt Liness, quoted in the Canadian Geographic article:
“The whole mindset of being a Canadian really starts here, because this is where we push back the guys from the States. At the time, this was Stalingrad, because there was nothing between here and Montréal.”
Or, in another good quip with yet another reenactor:
“Who won the War of 1812?” …
“Canada did. We’re still here, and we’ve got health care.”
The Canadian government has an official story line on the war, and it pretty much says it’s the event that gave birth to Canada as we know it, to wit “the fight for Canada”.
I knew this anniversary was coming. I had good intentions of studying for it, reading a few scholarly books and generally smartening up. Well, somehow it’s already here and I do not feel fully prepared! It’s not too late, though. A good way to remedy general ignorance, or commemorate an event of deep regional significance, would be to take in current events and displays.
Starting June 13th (and running through January) the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa opens its main display on that conflict: 1812: One War, Four Perspectives.
Why four? Because the players break down as follows: Britain, British North America (which became the Dominion of Canada in 1867), the United States of America and the Native peoples of the region.
Writing about the exhibit in the Ottawa Citizen, reporter Michelle Zilio put it this way, while interviewing pre-Confederation historian Peter MacLeod, curator for this event:
After the U.S. declared war on Britain in June 1812, the conflict developed into one of the most inconclusive historic events in modern history. For the Canadians, the war was about defending against an American invasion.
For the Americans, however, the focus was on defeating the British Empire. For the British, it’s a commonly forgotten conflict, overshadowed by the Napoleonic Wars raging at the same time in Europe. Finally, for the Native Americans, whose participation in the war is often forgotten, it was a fight to maintain territory as chaos wreaked havoc across their lands.
But who won? That’s something even MacLeod cannot answer.
“For Canadians, it’s obvious. We’re in the Canadian War Museum, there’s a Canadian flag outside, so obviously we won,” MacLeod says. “Except the Americans claim they won, too. … They see it as a war across the Atlantic world against the British Empire.”
Writing about the same exhibit in Maclean’s Magazine, the most-forgotten perspective is explored:
For Native Americans, it was an existential fight. “Here is a chance presented to us,” the Shawnee leader Tecumseh said, “a chance such as will never occur again, for us Indians of North America to form ourselves into a great combination and cast our lot with the British in this war.”
Tecumseh’s coalition of Native American tribes believed that by aligning themselves with the British, they might stop American expansionism. “This is the last war where they have a serious chance to roll back the American frontier,” says MacLeod. “And it’s the last war where they have a European ally on their side. After this they’re facing the United States on their own, and the Americans basically roll straight to the Pacific.”
How do you think this war should be viewed or remembered?
What’s happening to commemorate this anniversary in your area?