On the Governments’ Approach to Rememeber the War of 1812

Without the War of 1812, Canada as we know it today would not exist,” said James Maunder, a spokesman for Mr. Moore. “The War of 1812 paved the way for Confederation. It was instrumental in the creation of our military. It was truly the fight for Canada.”

–          Ottawa aims to drum up Canadians’ interest in the War of 1812, Steven Chase, Globe and Mail, Monday, Oct. 10, 2011

When I heard that the Federal Conservatives were going to promote the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, I was surprised. The idea of a public education campaign did not fit with this government. So I decided to listen. Yet, the more I heard the more disappointed I became. For, it was clear that this government has no interest in educating the public about the War.

Well, let us start from the beginning. Canada as a concept is something that is argued for in the 1860’s. Before 1860, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the Province of Canada (i.e. what became Ontario and Quebec) did not want to have anything to do with each other. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia tried to withdraw from Confederation in its early years.

The years before Confederation are full of confusing anecdotes. For it was a different time with different rules. The sad thing though was that the War of 1812 was a war of pride that did not solve very much. The borders that existed before the War of 1812 remained the same after that War. The Treaty of Ghent, signed in 1814, returned the British Empire and the United States to their pre-war status. Or put in other words, the treaty between the British and United States largely restored relations between the two nations to the “status quo ante bellum”.

The treaty released all prisoners and restored all war lands and boats. The British returned to the United States approximately10,000,000 acres(40,000 km2) of territory, near Lakes Superior and Michigan, in Maine, and on the Pacific coast. While, American-held areas of Upper Canada were returned to the Empire. Furthermore, Britain promised to return black slaves freed by the conflict or the British paid for their purchase.

This might be confusing to Canadians today, so let me explain. The United States declared war on Britain in 1812 because Britain was making it difficult for the United States to trade with France. Under Napoleon, France had gone to war with most of Europe. In an attempt to slow Napoleon, the British essentially blocked the French and their allies. This meant that the British boarded, searched and seized any materials that could have helped the French.  As author Reginald Horsman explains, “a large section of influential British opinion, both in the government and in the country, thought that America presented a threat to British maritime supremacy.” Needless to say, the United States’ view was that Britain’s restrictions violated its right to trade with others.

However, this was not the only issue. American Expansion disrupted British Territories and various Native American Nations. Consequently, the British supported various North American Bands. Finally, there was the Impressment Issue. Or put differently, given the British need for soldiers and sailors to defeat Napoleon, the British ignored America’s ability to naturalize foreigners. Those issues, plus a desire to rid the New World of British Influence, led to a declaration of war.

With all of this being said, no one really wanted to fight this war. If anything it was a war of ineptitude. One can talk about US troops from the South who were not equipped for Canadian Winter. Nor did the United States have an efficient fight force. At the beginning of the war the US had 7,000 troops, 6 frigates and 14 other ships.  While this increased through the war – 35,800 by wars’ end – the British Empire had an easy time keeping pace. For example, British had 5,000 troops stationed in its British North American Territories and 48,160 by war’s end.  On the other hand, the British were concentrating on the Napoléon.  So they never did try to win the war. The British just wanted to keep the US at bay. Or put differently, this was not the fight for Canada that the present Conservative Government wants to portray. History tells us that this conflict grew out of the Napoleonic Wars and easily resolved once the Napoleonic Conflicted ended.

So why make a big deal about this conflict? One would have to say it is mostly political. For example, according to the Montreal Gazette, Environment Minister Peter Kent pointed out Canada’s long naval and military history can be traced back to the war. Furthermore he said the “war that established the cornerstones of our political institutions and laid the foundation of confederation”. The only problem is that is flatly not true. Our army is made up of regiments that were formed for local reasons. While our naval history starts with the Laurier Liberals well after 1867. Furthermore, our form of government comes out of a set of acts including the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Durham Report of 1839 and the British North American Act of 1867.

Or once you go through the reasoning, one thing becomes true. Like renaming of the Navy and Air Force, to the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force, this government is bereft of real policy.

The sad thing is that the Harper Tories could have done something amazing with this gift. We could have had a wonderful documentary talking about the history as it was. Canada could have created a chair at an existing university, an institute or university to study to conflict and learn from it. To their credit, this government will rebuild and repair structures associated with the 1812 Conflict. However, there is so much more that could be done. Instead of wasting money on recreations or building memorials to men that have been dead for more than 200 years, we could remember the loss of life in better ways. That is why I criticize this government. For they have not provided historians with the tools to teach what actually happened. Instead, this Conservative government has twisted a historical event to fit their narrow-minded goals in the most crass political manner possible.

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