Ideologically-informed history

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Get me my musket: Canada is a nation of war now!

That sentiment seems to be what the Conservative government hoped for as it began its campaign to commemorate the War of 1812 last Tuesday. Heritage Minister James Moore announced the government’s plans to teach Canadians about the War of 1812. He stressed the importance of realizing that the war “was the fight for Canada” and that without the war “Canada as we know it would not exist.”

In pursuit of demonstrating the importance of the War of 1812, the government announced that they would also be funding an increased education campaign, several historical re-enactments, and a permanent memorial to the war in Ottawa. The day after Moore’s announcement, Conservative MPs fanned out across the country to drive home how important the war was to Canada as a nation.

The message they looked to reinforce was the foundation of a national identity based around the struggle to remain Canadian, as demonstrated by the events of the War of 1812. The government envisions it as our war of independence, comparable to the American Revolution. This war, which happened 55 years before Canada was founded, is critical to our understanding of who we are as Canadians, at least according to the government. They portray it as a coming-of-age story for Canada, as proof that we have a proud military heritage that unites us as a country and proves we deserve our sovereignty. Historian Donald Graves stated, “The lesson we should draw is that proclaiming sovereignty isn’t enough; you have to be able to defend it.”

The only problem with this interpretation of history is that it is not entirely accurate. First and most blatantly obvious is that it wasn’t a war between the United States and Canada in which we preserved our independence as a sovereign nation – it was a war between the U.S. and Britain in which Britain, supported by a few militias and natives, fought the United States to a stalemate. Canadian sovereignty didn’t even enter into the equation.

Second, portraying the United States as a monumental threat to Canada’s existence is viewing the United States through the eyes of the 21st century rather than the eyes of the 19th century. In 1812, the United States was not the massive, military-industrial superpower it has been for the last 60 years. It was a country fractured along state lines with a standing army of only 10,000 and no real military leadership to speak of. Historical research further suggests that the United States never intended to annex Canada but rather sought only to capture it as a bargaining chip in the eventual negotiations with Britain to meet other more important demands; namely, ending the forcible impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy and the trade blockade with France. Even if America had won the war, Canada would likely have been returned to the British fold without much struggle.

Finally, portraying the war as Canada’s formative event and as a bold declaration of Canadian sovereignty is wishful thinking. It was a war in which “Canadians” fought to remain under the rule of Britain rather than for freedom from the British. More than anything, it appears to be an attempt to instil in Canadians a false sense of national military tradition that is not really there. Canadians fight when we have to, and then move on with our lives. The attempt to create a military tradition in Canada appears to be an attempt to emulate the American military ideal, and we all know how well that is working out.

Even if we accept the Conservative version of the War of 1812 as one in which we fought to remain independently Canadian, then why is the government acting more and more like the United States?

Edward Dodd
Op-Ed Editor

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