It didn’t take long. This week the war of words over commemorations around the War of 1812 are already starting to heat up. The opening salvos in the campaign were lobbed this week by Jeffrey Simpson in a column in the Globe and Mail and a rebuttal in the National Post by historian Chris Champion.
Each makes some very valid points that are masked under the political rhetoric thrown in both directions. To Simpsons main point, that the war was “among the dumbest ever fought,” he’s probably right. It wasn’t a particularly smart war to be started, but that doesn’t change the fact that it happened and that the outcome was extremely important in the eventual development of Canada.
Simpson’s biggest concern is that the event will be constructed into a nationalistic event that portrays the war as a gallant fight to save Canada, when “Canada” as we know it was only in its earliest stages. “There was no sense of being ‘Canadian’ at the time,” Simpson implores. The war was “between the United States Republic and an outpost of the British Empire.” You can’t have Canadians fighting for a Canada that doesn’t actually exist yet.
Simpson is making a political argument rather than a historical one, designed to attack the current Conservative Government more than retelling accurate history. Ironically, it’s exactly what he’s suggesting the Conservatives will do themselves over the next three years, substituting politics for history.
Likewise, Champion probably overplays his hand, exactly what Simpson is expecting in the coming commemorations. Champion’s response is that in fact there were significant Canadian traditions that existed at the time and carry on today, such as Charles de Salaberry and his Voltigeurs Canadiens. “The Battle of Crysler’s Farm two weeks later has long been known as ‘The battle that saved Canada,” he replies. Perhaps it has been known as that for a long time, but not likely at the time of the battle itself.
The War of 1812 was not a war between Canada and the United States, it was a war between Britain and the United States that was largely fought on Canadian soil. Champion is right when he says that Canada likely would have been absorbed into the United States had they been victorious, even if that wasn’t necessarily why the Americans went to war in the first place. The war had significant consequences for Canada and for the First Nations. But it was as much a war between British, Americans, and First Nations rather than Canadians that we think of today.
On a positive note, there is open and heated public debate about the War of 1812. It’s a major moment in Canadian history, one that deserves to be commemorated, retold, and debated. Let us know what you think about this debate by going to our forum and posting your own thoughts. How do you think the War of 1812 should be commemorated?