Playing the Indian Card

Friday, October 21, 2011

The War of 1812

Coupland's "War of 1812," Toronto

I would have thought that commemorating the War of 1812 was a no-brainer. In fact, I have written in the past about my concern that it is not better commemorated. What future does any country have that will not celebrate its history?

It seems, however, that there is real resistance to the idea in Canada today. Senator Grant Mitchell has posted a strong dissent on the Liberal Senate website (

His first and main complaint is that remembering history is “dragging us back into the past.” This is an interesting variant of the usual politician's doublespeak that they are “leading us into the future.” Easy for anyone to say, but perfectly meaningless—time being one-dimensional, it is impossible to lead anywhere else but into the future. Conversely, it is nonsensical to speak of “going back into the past.” Except in the sense that all knowledge is necessarily a reach into the past, that is, into memory. To be against going back into the past in this sense is simply to be against knowledge. Which may suit some agendas perfectly, of course...

Mitchell then gives his objections in point form:

  1. Given that the US is our friend, why would we want to remind them that they lost this war and that our forces set the White House on fire?
Burn, baby, burn!

First, let's clear up a common misconception. Canadian forces did not set the White House on fire. The British Navy did, and no Canadians were likely to have been involved. Time to put that old saw to rest.

But as to the larger point, that Canada should not alienate a present friend by celebrating a past dispute: on this advice, Britain had better pull up all those columns with Nelson standing at the top, and rename all those Wellington Streets. After all, France has long been a good friend and important trading partner. And France in turn had best can those D-Day celebrations; Germany is now their closest ally.

But of course, nobody worries about this. It is precisely because these nations are now friends and allies that such commemorations are not provocative. And it is the general course of history, and a good thing, that former enemies usually become friends later. This ought to be pointed out, and celebrated, not suppressed. If it is suppressed, moreover, just about all history is impossible.

  1. It bears no real relevance to the development of the Canadian nation.


This claim is a radical bit of historical revisionism. More commonly, it has been felt by historians that the War of 1812 was the true birth of Canada as a nation. In the words of Pierre Burton and the Canadian Encyclopedia, “Canada owes its present shape to negotiations that grew out of the peace, while the war itself - or the myths created by the war - gave Canadians their first sense of community and laid the foundation for their future nationhood. “ By showing they were prepared to fight, even against overwhelming odds, to preserve their independence from the US, Canadians showed their commitment to Canada. Anglophones, Francophones, and aboriginals saw a common cause and fought as one, shoulder to shoulder. If this all bears no relevance to the development of the Canadian nation, one must ask urgently, what does Senator Mitchell imagine the Canadian nation to be? Was it invented by Pierre Trudeau in 1982?

  1. It glorifies war when the war was not necessary or justifiable (to the extent that any war ever is).

Is pacifism ever justifiable? It glorifies moral cowardice. The greatest sin of all is to stand idly by and let evil triumph. God forbid that this should ever become the Canadian way, for it never has been.

As to the War of 1812 specifically, from the Canadian perspective, it was a perfect example of a just war. The US declared war on Britain; Britain did not declare war on the US. The US might or might not have had legitimate grievances against Britain that justified this aggression, but if so, these had nothing to do with Canada. The US invaded Canada; Canada did not invade the US. The Canadian strategy at the beginning of the war was purely defensive. If Canadians had refused to fight, the likely result would have been, quite simply, the end of Canada.

Senator Mitchell is saying, in sum, that the existence of Canada is not necessary or justifiable.

  1. If it means anything to anyone, it certainly does not have a national resonance of any kind, being pretty much irrelevant to the West.

The two-thousand-mile-wide battlefield (part)

Right. By that logic, the US similarly has no business commemorating its War of Independence, which involved, after all, only 13 of the present 50 states. We should also chuck out Canada Day and all this fuss about commemorating Confederation in 1867, since it involved only 4 provinces.

Nice to see the Liberals finally acknowledging that Canada has a West, and that America is our ally, though. This could be a breakthrough.

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