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Historical Amnesia and the War of 1812

Constructing Canadian Identity

by Andy Crosby

Canadian War Museum   Photo: Andy Crosby
Canadian War Museum Photo: Andy Crosby

Two hundred years ago, the War of 1812 erupted between the United States and Great Britain in what is today southern Ontario. The notion of a shared interest and bravery among Indigenous, Black, English and French populations in the face of an aggressive invader is popular in the Canadian imaginary; at least, that’s what the Canadian government wants you to believe.

Harper and his ministers have embarked on a multi-million dollar campaign in an effort to rewrite history in a way that promotes the War of 1812 as an expression of unity, identity, and struggle, entrenching it firmly as a key part of nation building.

Coins, commercials, exhibits, reenactments, and even a new question on Canada’s citizenship test all highlight how history is being rewritten by a state willing to spend millions of dollars. The government has spent $28 million commemorating the War of 1812 and trying to shore up sentiments of patriotism and national unity, while glossing over uncomfortable historical divisions which still resonate today.

What is ignored in the pageantry and sound bites surrounding the bicentennial spectacle are the issues of race, ethnicity, and class that were at the core of the War of 1812, and in particular the lukewarm support from many populations.

Over the past year, the government has repeated the myth that French, Black, and Indigenous fighters stood united with the English. For the most part the press has played along with this narrative, with the National Post proclaiming, “The conflict was one of Canada’s few uncontroversial wars as it pitted anglophone, francophone and Aboriginal against a common enemy.”

Canadas United?: The Lachine Riot

On Sept. 14, Stephen Harper awarded honours to regiments involved in significant battles, including those that fought at the Battle of Châteauguay in October 1813. He trumpeted the battle as an example of French Canadians and Mohawk warriors rallying to the nationalist cause to defend Montreal.

Historian Alan Taylor, author of The Civil War of 1812,  argues that the Harper government is asserting a version of history which creates a “perceived unity between French and English-speaking Canadians in the hopes [that] it will translate into the present.”

What the government does not discuss is the widespread collective resistance to military conscription that culminated in the Lachine Riot in Montreal on July 1, 1812.

In Lower Canada, what is today Quebec, the efforts of the political, economic and religious elite to encourage the predominantly francophone population to take up arms on the side of the British was met with limited success.

In his study of the riot, historian Sean Mills argues that the government threatened conscripts who refused to serve in the war with arrest. On July 1, hundreds of demonstrators rallied—some armed—to free an arrested man. Officials raised fears about the event’s “explosive potential,”saying it could create a “chain reaction” throughout the region.

The British army was called in and arrived with artillery. They fired into the crowd and killed at least one demonstrator. Although the insurrection was subdued by force, widespread non-cooperation with military conscription is an important highlight fracturing the mythic depiction of a unified Canada.

Playing the Race Card: The “Coloured Corps”

The Harper government has also made efforts to commemorate Black people who lived in Upper Canada, what is today Ontario, for their contributions to the war. As part of their War of 1812 Bicentennial Education Campaign, the Canadian Heritage Ministry provided over $700,000 to the Historica-Dominion Institute. On Oct. 19, 2012, the institute released a new Heritage Minute that focused on private Richard Pierpoint of an all-Black regiment led by White officers called the “Coloured Corps.”

Although Blacks fought on both sides during the war, slavery was still a reality in both the US and Canada. While Pierpoint was freed for fighting in the American Revolution, the Loyalists who escaped to Canada brought their slaves with them. While restrictions were put on slavery in Upper Canada at the beginning of the 19th century, slavery was not abolished until the 1830s and systemic racism against Black communities continues to this day.

A Legacy of Broken Promises

Perhaps the most controversial and tokenistic aspect of the bicentennial anniversary is Canada’s broken treaties and colonial relationship with Indigenous nations.

On Oct. 25, Prime Minister Harper, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, Governor General David Johnston, and Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk met with Indigenous leaders at Rideau Hall to present them with medals and military banners.

“Canada’s Aboriginal people were in every sense key to the victory that firmly established Canada as a distinct country in North America,” said Harper. “Without their courage and honour, Canada would not have been able to successfully defend itself.”

Indeed, the mobilization of 10,000 Indigenous fighters in the early days of the war was instrumental in halting the invasion. At the special ceremony, Chief Isadore Day of the Serpent River First Nation dished out a dose of reality to Harper’s narrative.

“There was a history surrounding the great battle called the War of 1812 where our people would offer as gifts to you weapons, our war clubs, in peace and alliance, and I must be clear on behalf of the Anishinaabe people, we cannot do this at this point in history,” said Day. “It is now you that we struggle against, the Crown in many cases and the federal government. It is you that we now fight in an effort to eliminate poverty and pain in our people.”

Anthony Hall, a professor at the University of Lethbridge, notes that the Indian Confederacy under Shawnee leader Tecumseh fought a war of liberation with very specific geopolitical objectives. Referring to it as the “Indian War of Independence” in The American Empire and the Fourth World, Hall explains, “The Confederacy’s primary objective was to gain international recognition as a nation state with secure, internationally recognized borders.”

After the War, during talks which led to the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, the British backed away from their promise to create an independent Indian state south of the Great Lakes. Indigenous representatives were not invited to the negotiations, and although the US was in a position of considerable weakness, the British reneged on their demands and instead asked the Americans to cease hostilities and restore status and title as held in 1811. The US enthusiastically agreed to the non-binding agreement.

Despite the alliance and the Indigenous role in defending the Canadas, broken promises and treaties are compounded by an ongoing legacy of colonial injustices. With Canadian independence — and the vision of Canada’s founding fathers — came a legislative agenda aimed towards “eliminating the Indian,” which included the reserve system, sterilization efforts, residential schools, and other policies.

Day continued, “We struggle with the imposed legislation called the Indian Act that had nothing to do with pre-confederate treaties,” telling Harper, “We never gave up jurisdiction. That was not what these wampums and these treaties were used for.”

Propagandizing the Past

There is no clearer exposé of the government’s agenda than a big military celebration that took place last June in the town of Stouffville, Ontario. Stouffville was founded by Quakers, and a sizeable proportion of the settlers in Upper Canada came from pacifist sects in the US.

The response from the local Quaker community to the militarized “Freedom of the Town” event was to peacefully protest. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, a local minister, wrote an op-ed for the Toronto Star exposing the historical revisionism at play. In it, he noted that Quakers are proud of their history as “Canada’s pioneers of conscientious objection to war.” The Globe and Mail quoted him calling the military fantasy an “affront to the truthful telling of that history.”

Around that time, Calgary Conservative MP Rob Anders compared old and new conflicts in a constituency newsletter: “These same principles of freedom, liberty and volunteer military service are alive today and have guided us through the last 10 years of warfare against Islamic terrorism.”

In the context of slashing funding for archives and libraries across the country, Stephen Harper’s allocation of $28 million to celebrate the War of 1812 can only be seen as part of the drive to militarization, and a re-branding of Canada as, in Harper’s words, a nation “with a long and proud military history.”

But it is not just about the money wasted on a nationalistic project. According to John Bell, journalist and columnist with the Socialist Worker, “the Harper revision of the history of the War of 1812 is also laughable when placed in context of the real history that the populations on both sides of a barely existing border opposed the war and wanted to be left to their work and their farms.”

Substantial numbers of Upper Canadians were conscientious objectors based on their faith, many Lower Canadians rioted against conscription, Indigenous peoples fought for their own state, while Blacks fought in a context of slavery in both the north and south.

According to Bell, “British officials had to lock down every boat on the Lake Ontario shore to stem the flood of desertion, [and] somehow a real tradition of resisting war got left out of the glossy Tory brochures.”

Local Legacies: The Rideau Canal

After the war, the Canadian colony took preventative military measures fearing that conflict with the Americans might reignite in the future.

The St. Lawrence waterway between Montreal and Kingston was perceived as vulnerable to attack, and so the military elite in Upper Canada made plans to construct an alternative supply route.

Thousands of primarily French Canadian labourers and Irish immigrants based in Bytown, present-day Ottawa, constructed the 202 kilometre Rideau Canal between 1826 and 1832.

Most earned very low wages and experienced dangerous and exhaustive working conditions. They lived in cramped, temporary camps, ate inadequate food, and were susceptible to disease. During the course of construction upwards of 1,000 people died.

Historian William N.T. Wylie notes that British troops were stationed along the canal to “maintain a docile working force” because of the exploitative working conditions and the tendency of the Irish to react with “group solidarity and violence.”

At the time, Colonel By, a military commander, noted that he “had some trouble with the lower class of Irish.” Reportedly with the assistance of French timber workers, Irish labourers staged three strikes in Bytown in 1827.

Wylie notes that by using the military to quell unrest, Colonel By set a precedent in the history of Canadian labour relations as the deployment of soldiers against strikers became common over the following century.

Recently, the Canal Workers Commemorative Group lobbied the government for recognition of the labourers’ contributions. Parks Canada’s Historic Sites and Monuments Board twice rejected the group’s application, claiming it was not of national historical significance. According to the Ottawa Citizen, the government’s position was that it “represented a typical and common form of labour at the time, and that it was not unusual, nor was it remarkable.”

Public outcry caused the government to shift its position, and on Nov. 2, Peter Kent, environment minister responsible for Parks Canada, issued a statement announcing formal recognition of the workers, with plans to erect plaques and interpretive panels in their honour.

It is estimated that upwards of 100,000 descendants of the canal workers live in the Ottawa area today.

This article first appeared in the Leveller newspaper – Vol. 5, No. 3 (Nov/Dec 2012)

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