Canadian history (pre-1982)

Today marks the bicentennial anniversary of the beginning of hostilities during the War of 1812. The war between the Americans and British for what is now modern-day Canada was a formative event in our history for who were are as a people, it marked a heroic win for British forces in holding the line against the American incursion, and helped defined the politics of our young country and raison-d’etre of its formation. The conflict lasted nearly three years and claimed about 15,000 lives.

Streetlamps in Ottawa are marked with banners commemorating the 200 years since the event. As a significant element of our national heritage, it is being recognized as such with a national public awareness campaign by the Minister of Heritage and Prime Minister Stephen Harper which includes new stamps and minted coins, celebrations during Canada Day, and commemorative deployment of the Royal Canadian Navy to Canadian and US ports.

The War of 1812 represents an important aspect of this Prime Minister’s rebranding of our national image at home. For years, “Canada” was based upon a Trudeaupian narrative hatched out of Ottawa from successive decades of the central Canadian establishment consensus. What made a Canadian a “Canadian” was the fact that he had universal healthcare, and had a well-funded national public broadcaster. Indeed, we were more defined by the nation-building done by our legislators, than by that done by the heroism of hundreds of thousands who put their lives on the line in defense of Crown and country.

Conservatives look to our history and see the individual heroism that defines us while liberals look to our “social history”.

In Ottawa, the chattering classes have been treating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 with disdain, suggesting that recognizing it either costs too much or that it is crass political posturing. To be sure, part of the legacy of this government will be in its recognition of Canadian symbols and history long airbrushed out by Canada’s establishment elite. Consider the push-back received when the Minister of Foreign Affairs wanted to restore the place of the Queen’s portrait in DFAIT and in our missions around the world. And what of the establishment freak-out of the restoration of the royal moniker to branches of our military despite widespread excitement among active personnel? Hundreds of thousands served their country under the “royal” designation. The government’s act was broadly seen (outside of Ottawa) as a restoration of pride. Consider too, the bellyaching heard ’round the Ottawa bubble when Conservatives passed on throwing a ticker-tape parade for the hardly notable 30th anniversary of the Charter.

The 200th anniversary of a war which helped define the formation of Canada may have happened long before 1982 when some in Ottawa believe that Pierre Elliot Trudeau granted us collective and individual rights. The perceived snub of this social history caused great consternation among national columnists and their friends in the Liberal Party, while the recognition of our men and women that serve our country with greater bravery than most of us will ever muster is seen as a waste or a spectacle.

Today, we recognize our nation-builders past and present who guaranteed the rights and freedoms that a pirouetting charlatan in a cape with a rose in lapel would later “liberate” for us to the great admiration of cynics who believe that Canada’s definition stems from governance, not from its glory.



  • Pmnop3

    Contrary to the “chattering classes”, our universal health care is not unique, is not superior, and is not very user-friendly when compared to our peers in Europe. And most civilized nations have bills of rights and constitutions. Neither of these is unique.

    Our history is factual. We would be a part of the United States if it were not for the heroism, blood and sacrifice of professional soldiers in her Majesty’s armed forces posted here in the colonies, the bravery of our own home-grown militia, and the alliance of First Nations, being pushed ever further west by an aggressively expansionist USA. The very people whining that we are celebrating this milestone in our nationhood are precisely the very same voices who would be appalled if we’re we’re indeed annexed by the USA.

    Harper has got it exactly right, and I hope it’s decades before the Trudeauites get another kick at the can

  • Gerry Burnie

    “What made a Canadian a “Canadian” was the fact that he had universal healthcare, and had a well-funded national public broadcaster. Indeed, we were more defined by the nation-building done by our legislators, than by that done by the heroism of hundreds of thousands who put their lives on the line in defense of Crown and country.” Couldn’t agree more. My view was expressed by Frederick de la Fosse. i.e. “I often wonder why, when governments and communities erect monuments to heroes, they
    forget to erect one to the honour of the Pioneer.”- Frederick de la Fosse (1860 – 1950)

  • Frances

    So let’s have a resounding rendition of “MacDonnell on the Heights” to acknowledge those who made the sacrifice 200 years ago.

  • Bigcitylib StrikesBack

    Stephen doesn’t even believe this bullshit.

  • Alain

    Thank you for expressing so well pretty much my thoughts. It is a shame that so many nowadays are totally ignorant of our real history as opposed to the make believe Liberal invention.

  • Brett

    Our universal health care is not even universal. Some provinces have health care premiums, some don’t. What one province may cover, the same service/procedure is not necessarily covered by another etc. etc.

  • Anonymous

    Conservatives look to our history and see the individual heroism that defines us while liberals look to our “social history”.

    [barf] Wow. Where’s the flamebait tag?

    What’s the sense of replacing one national caricature, if that’s how you see it, with another? The war of 1812 wasn’t a glorious war. It was a dirty war, by the standards of the time. The British were harassing along the eastern seaboard – look up ‘impressment’ – they were also arming the indigenous nations of the midwest, who were then attacking American settlers. In the ground war on our Ontario border, both sides engaged in razing undefended towns and villages. The cross-border attacks performed by either side were more punitive than attempts at territorial conquest.

    Yes the war helped seed Canadian nationalism. And we got Laura Secord and some summertime pageantry out of it, and kids get to fire off muskets if they don’t faint in those 90 lb uniforms. But the border action was essentially a sideshow, and the war ended in a negotiated stalemate. In Ghent. As a founding narrative for Canada, it’s really weak soup.

    The achievements of Canada’s founders leading up to the BNA act, and our struggles, growth and victories after that, are far more significant to our heritage than the war of 1812. And most historians would agree that Canada came into her own as a mature and independent nation, in the 20th century, especially in the period from WW II on.

    But you apparently sum up and dismiss all that as “healthcare and a national broadcaster”. Awesome.

    Whatever else you accuse him of, most Canadians still know that the “charlatan in a cape” did more to advance Canada as a real nation than any PC (or CPC) PM since the 50’s. Your attempts to rewind this notwithstanding.

  • Anonymous

    Revisionist pap. US expansionism was NOT the cause of the war of 1812.

  • Stephen Taylor

    You’re welcome to comment here, but you’ll have to do better than that. Saying an angry word doesn’t counter anything, it just shows me that you disagree with the article without letting anyone know why.

  • Stephen Taylor
  • Karen Jourden

    I agree with you Stephen Taylor. It has been a long time since I did studying on the War of 1812. I will have to do some brush up on it.

  • Saskboy K.

    Many countries celebrate their independence/constitution, yet you mock that remarkably peaceful event, while praising a war that didn’t even end with Canadian independence. Quite a strange perspective for someone attempting to honour Canadian heritage.

  • DougM

    Geezus!, its not that you just make stuff up, but there are times when it seems you actually believe it! Do you just make stuff up because you haven’t a clue or did your parents just tell you whatever you said was the truth?
    As indicated in Maddison’s “Mere matter of marching” – the invasion of Canada was precisely the intent of the War of 1812. The US, faced with expansion west into the Native territories they feared or occupying the nacient state of the enemy they had aslready fought and won a war against, not surrpisingly picked the second. And no wonder. Britain was already engaged in a fight to the death with Bonaparte and had all their resources needed at home and the supply lines to Canada were 3500 miles long, So the Yanks sought to expand north and follow the Loyalists who have favoured King George while Britain was already engaged. (Isn’t it funny that they agreed to a treaty just after Napolean was destroyed at Waterloo?) When they elected the “War congress” (google it) the die was cast for the invasion. The US fear of the natives was so extreme by the way, that Detroit was captured without a shot being fired precisely based on that fear. Little wonder that they sought to take over towns and cities that were already cleared of them. It is also the reason the New Englander’s did not support the invasion. “Not one nickle” they said to invade their neighbours, but they would “not beggar the nation” in its true defense. The war hawks didn’t take kindly to that. Nor, as the Yanks would have you believe, the Battle of New Orleans the victory that gave them a position of strength. It was fought after the Treaty of Ghent was signed. In fact, the final battle of the War of 1812 was at Point Peter and was an American route. You’re just so far out of touch with reality that there’s not much point of educating you. Try some reading. Vic Suthren was the director of the CWM so perhaps you’ll take his word – “The War of 1812″ (1999)(ISBN 0-7710-8317-3). If you want a more American view with quotes

    The primary goals of the War of 1812 were conquering Florida, at the time native American territory, and Canada, then British territory. Although the U.S. ostensibly went to war over maritime issues, John Randolph of Virginia noted, “Agrarian cupidity, not maritime rights, urges this war. Ever since the report of the Committee on Foreign Relations came into the House, we have heard but one eternal monotonous tone – Canada! Canada! Canada! Not a syllable about Halifax, which unquestionably should be our great object in a war for maritime security.”

    U.S. leaders were confident of easily taking over our neighbor to the north. William Eustis, the U.S. Secretary for War declared: “We can take the Canadas without soldiers, we have only to send officers into the province and the people . . . will rally round our standard.” John C. Calhoun claimed that “In four weeks from the time that a declaration of war is heard on our frontier, the whole of Canada will be in our possession.” James Madison similarly proclaimed that “[t]he acquisition of Canada this year will be a mere matter of marching,” and Henry Clay boasted, “I trust I shall not be deemed presumptuous when I state that I verily believe that the militia of Kentucky are alone competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet.”

    A variety of motives contributed to this sentiment. The Rev. McLeod described the war as “extending the principles of representative democracy – the blessings of liberty, and the rights of self-government – among the colonies of Europe.” A Virginia newspaper (the Virginia Argus of Richmond) was more frank about the “advantages to be derived from the acquisition” of Canada, including “the suppression of a great deal of smuggling [and] the curtailment…of the British fur trade…”

    The U.S. had made feeble attempts during the Revolutionary War to invade Canada. In September of 1775, Col. Ethan Alan was taken prisoner during an unsuccessful attempt to capture Montreal. Three months later, Gen. Montgomery led an attack on Quebec during a blinding snowstorm; Montgomery was killed and Gen. Benedict Arnold was wounded. This attack also failed, and half the American forces were killed or wounded.

    Attempts to invade Canada during the War of 1812 failed even more spectacularly. An early attempt to invade failed before it began when Gen. William Hull, reportedly frightened into a state of near incoherence, surrendered his entire army at Detroit without firing a shot. Two months later another attempt was bungled when Gen. Stephen Van Rensselaer failed to persuade his militia to cross the U.S.-Canada border. A small detachment of troops which entered Canada was shot down and forced to surrender while Van Rensellaer’s troops stood by and watched. Another invasion attempt, on 19 November 1812, collapsed when American troops refused to leave New York State and forced their leader, Gen. Henry Dearborn, to march them back to Pittsburgh. Less than two weeks later, Gen. “Apocalypse” Smythe twice ordered his troops to cross the Niagara, both times failing in his courage and calling off the attacks. On returning from the second attempt, the soldiers turned their weapons on Smythe, forcing him to flee to Virginia.

    The following April, U.S. troops attacked again in an unsuccessful attempt to gain control of Lake Ontario. Granted, the U.S. did win some battles, but once Britain was freed from its involvement against France, defeat was inevitable.

    By the way, The Munroe Doctrine and the principles of Manifest Destiny were also aimed at limiting Britain’s influence in Canada – when you’re finished reading up on the war, you should try them too.

  • DougM

    If he’s truly a BigCityLib, and can manage to spell bullsh”t, he’s a good deal more literate than most….

  • Anonymous

    Invasion of British territories to the north was both an OPPORTUNITY and a point of attack that the US thought would be a pushover. It was not the CAUSE of the war.

    I do think that the War of 1812, and it’s role as the first crystallization of “nationhood” is worth recognizing. I object strenuously to whitewashing and mythologizing, and in particular the spin from the two Stephens that tries to portray the Liberals and their accomplishments as somehow anti-history.

    Since we managed to keep the Americans out, how do you feel about letting armed US officers operate on Canadian soil?