As you may have heard, the Harper government is on a serious patriotism kick these days. And when conservatives get patriotic, they look to the past.
All Canadian embassies, for example, have been ordered to display a large portrait of an octogenarian English woman (a.k.a. the Queen, or, if no portrait of the Queen is available, Helen Mirren). And we are going to spend a tiny fortune on commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
Now, if you’re a product of the Canadian school system, you likely read something about the War of 1812 sometime around Grade 7, sandwiched in between units on Brazil and multiculturalism. Now, I’m a bit of a history buff, but my knowledge of the War of 1812 is somewhat limited. As far as I know, we “won” the war, and that’s pretty much all I can remember.
But according to the propagandists in the Tory party, the War of 1812 was a (mostly British) triumph for Canada, the beginnings of this great nation, blah blah blah. I share the government’s concern that Canadians are woefully ignorant of our own history, the blame for which must lie directly at the feet of our educators, who seem to believe that teaching about feelings is more important that teaching about your country.
But is the War of 1812 worth commemorating, particularly at a cost of millions of dollars?
To get to the bottom of this, I invested a great deal of my time (two hours!) researching the war, courtesy of a PBS documentary on the struggle. Yes, I watched an American show on the war between Canada and the U.S. I didn’t see a Canadian version anywhere on the schedule, and, knowing the CBC, there will probably be a miniseries ready sometime around 2016.
Anyway, according to the documentary (which struck me as scrupulously fair), here’s the deal.
The war was not, of course, between Canada and the U.S., but between Britain and the U.S. Relations between the mother country and its upstart ex-colony were not good. The British were acting like thugs, pushing around the Americans at sea and kidnapping their sailors, essentially acting like 20th Century Americans. The discovery of British arms in Indian territory enraged a lot of western Americans, and after much dithering, the U.S. declared war on Britain in 1812. It was pretty much the last thing the Brits wanted, in that they were engaged in an endless battle with Napoleon of France, their king, George III, was nuts (leaders named George who are crazy have a long history), and their prime minister had been shot dead in the House of Commons. But, when someone declares war on you, what choice do you have? So war it was.
Canada, of course, knew that it would bear the brunt of any war against Britain, in that Britain was thousands of miles away and Canada was right next door. And when the war began, things didn’t look good for puny Canada.
In fact, President James Madison thought Canada would welcome Americans as liberators (sound familiar?), and Thomas Jefferson famously said winning the war would be “a mere matter of marching”, the 17th century equivalent of the Mission Accomplished banner.
Gen. Isaac Brock, who was by all accounts a real renaissance man, led Canada’s small military force. Beyond the Canadian militia, Brock has just 1,200 British soldiers. However, they were pros, described by one of their own generals as “the scum of the earth”, which is the kind of scum you want on your side. The Americans, however, while large in number were amateurs at fighting. The U.S. didn’t even have a standing army at the time. Seriously.
The Canadian/British forces were badly outnumbered by the Yanks, but luckily for them the Indians were on our side. This is where the revered Indian leader Tecumseh comes in. He sided with Brock and the British/Canadians, thanks in large part to the terrible treatment his people received at the hands of the Americans.
The Americans tried to invade Canada at three different times, and each one was a total failure. In what is now Quebec, French and English banded together to repel the invaders. However, Brock took a musket ball to the chest and died in the battle of Queenston, robbing the British/Canadians of the great general.
The undaunted (and not very bright) Americans tried again to invade in 1813, and again, failed miserably. Somewhere in this mess we get the story of Laura Secord, who wandered through 20 miles of wilderness to warn the British of a coming American attack and, I presume, bring them some comforting chocolates.
Americans upped the ante in warfare by setting fire to the capital, York. This was unheard of at the time. Civilians were not supposed to be brought into war. In retaliation, the British burned Buffalo to the ground, causing dozens of dollars damage. The British also attacked the nation’s capital, Washington, and burned the White House, causing President Buchanan to flee.
By the standards of warfare at the time, there were plenty of atrocities to go around. Civilians got killed, prisoners were massacred, cities burned. And, typical of war, nothing was resolved. Who won the war? Basically, the answer is no one. There was no land exchanged, no boundaries changed. The war resulted in a great many people killed, lots of property damaged, and no change in the map whatsoever. Once the war was over, everybody just went back to being friends.
So who got the best of it?
Well, we got the legend of Laura Secord, and the right to hide behind Mother Britain’s hoop skirts for another 100 or so years. The Americans got The Star Spangled Banner out of it, and the Johnny Horton song The Battle of New Orleans. So, even that was a draw.
In the big picture, however, Canada won the right to remain non-American, which is the biggest prize. If the Americans had won, the whole history of North American would be different, and we’d probably all be watching American TV, and reading American books, and listening to American music, and … oh, wait.