A slick commercial appeared on Canadian television last year, featuring redcoats and period warships, with narrator intoning: “Two hundred years ago, the United States invaded our territory.” It’s 2013 and the invaders are long gone, but our leaders have set to work driving any ambiguity out of our collective memory. As we enter year two of an epic, multimillion-dollar celebration of the War of 1812, the federally sanctioned excitement has not waned. Its largess in an era of austerity is worthy of comment.
The commercial pushed us toward 1812.gc.ca, the official Canadian website for the war and itstwo hundredth anniversary. “Did You Know?” asks the landing page: “Canada would not exist had the American invasion of 1812-15 been successful.” A link invites us to discover “More Interesting Facts,” interpreting the term loosely. Fact: “The War of 1812 is an important milestone in the lead-up to the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation.”
Alongside lesson plans there’s a running tab for “breaking news,” like “November 15, 2012: Harper Government Highlights the Role of East Coast Privateers.” Fortunately 1812.gc.ca includes a mobile app, so the next time someone’s role gets highlighted, you don’t have to be the last to know. There are games, too. In one you outfit a rakish, mutton-chopped soldier for battle with the proper kit. The soldier’s impatience spoils the challenge, though. “Hint: My feet are cold!” He wants boots.
Across the top of the landing page are displayed steely-eyed actors: General Brock and Lt.-Col. Salaberry, Tecumseh, and Laura Secord. That’s English, French, Indigenous, and female—bases covered. Travel a bit down the page to find an item on the Black soldiers in the fight for Canada. This was our war, see, when we the rainbow coalition secured Canada’s national destiny.
Is this war a worthy myth for Canada? We successfully repulsed an invasion from a superior military force, it’s true. Canada was defended, but was it worth it?
Canada was a reactionary autocratic place then. It was built as a deliberate inversion of the democratic experiment.1 A colonial rentier state, it bribed its public with no tax and cheap land, discouraged the development of a middle class and civil society, censored the press with unique efficiency, and openly distrusted education for its emancipatory potential.2 Traveling from the United States to Canada would have been like moving from a vague and volatile sketch of the political future to a pastoral watercolour of the feudal past.
Were the heroes of 1812 real heroes? It depends on what you’re looking for. Brock, for example, was every bit the genius commander, delivering immense strategic bang on a meager buck. He just happened to hold Canada and Canadians in supreme contempt: “My situation is most critical, not from anything the enemy can do, but from the disposition of the people—the population, believe me, is essentially bad.”3
We’ve posthumously appropriated Tecumseh—Shawnee nationalist of the Ohio River country—as a Canadian hero. While it was a nice moment in the Native-non-Native relationship, a brief return to the old treaty order of fraternity and mutual defense, all feel-goodery was obliterated by the British betrayal at the end of the war, when they traded away Indigenous territorial claims in exchange for peace with the Americans. The Brits abused the trust of their Indigenous collaborators so profoundly that even the contemporary English popular press was galled.4
It’s hard to get excited about this particular war, in short, but no government teaches history to teach history. The history isn’t the point. This 1812 celebration is really the product of two present-day intellectual currents. The first is a resurgent conservative nationalism, which celebrates military success and a foreign monarch—and seeks to overturn four decades of social history that often looked unkindly on its heroes. The second is a widely expressed anxiety that we are alienated from our national history and, therefore, from ourselves.
Canadians sometimes think the latter feeling is an especially Canadian problem. We have whole NGOs dedicated to measuring our historical illiteracy disapprovingly. But nations that seem mature and fully formed experience the same fear. In a 2011 article in the London Review of Books, Richard Evans describes the efforts of the British government to re-establish a national narrative in school curricula. He quotes Britain’s education minister calling for an end to the tragic “thrashing of history” that leaves young Brits “ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know—the history of our United Kingdom.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough routinely complains about how ignorant young Americans are of their creation stories, laying blame with history textbooks “so politically correct as to be comic.”5 In both places there are similar movements to bolster national narratives, using public schools and public money. The insistence that citizens all read the same bedtime stories spans nationalisms.
If nothing else, 1812.gc.ca tells a few stories well. That the site is home to the first new Heritage Minutes in nearly a decade should be cause for much rejoicing. I can embrace the 1812 campaign for its celebration of stories, so long as I ignore those who insist that some fundamental Canadian nugget exists in the memory of this war. There’s no need to traffic in this folly. Canadian history isn’t one thing. It is, like the history of every other place, appalling, uplifting, inspirational, insidious and ambiguous at once. The 1812 stories on their own tell us nothing about who we now are.
My Loyalist ancestors were among the few common-folk who cared enough about the war’s outcome to turn up for the fight. One Morden lost an eyeball in the process—albeit from smallpox—establishing himself at the very pinnacle of this familial military tradition (the bar is not high). I’m not ashamed of his choice of king over republic, nor am I—are we—beholden to it. The past is another country.
1 Allan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812, New York: Vintage Books, 2010: 41
2 ibid: 69.
3 George Sheppard, Plunder, Profit and Paroles: A Social History of the War of 1812 in Upper Canada, Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1994: 53.
4 Robert S. Allen, His Majesty’s Indian Allies: British Indian Policy in the Defence of Canada, 1771-1815, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1993: 168.
5 Brian Bolduc, “Don’t Know Much About History”, Wall Street Journal, 18 June 2011.