The War of 1812 Bicentennial: Three Wishes

In honor of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the Globe & Mail has some coverage of the commemoration’s kick-off this weekend. By my count, there were four articles: a quiz by John Grodzinski of RMC intended to elicit a sense of ignorance about the war, op-eds by James Bartelman and Doug Saunders on the role of the First Nations and the consequences of the war for Upper Canda politics, and a short report on historical re-enactments of the war.

I’d say it was a pretty poor showing, if it wasn’t for an essay last Tuesday by Jack Granatstein that puts it all into perspective. Protesting the recent and the and already planned future cuts to Libraries and Archives Canada, as well as the dispersal of collections to regional centers, Granatstein tries to muster some surprise that these are coming from the current Conservative government, saying “The emphasis given to the War of 1812 is only the most recent example” of the fact that “The Harper government has genuinely seemed to be more concerned with honouring history than most of its predecessors.”

Yes, the Harper government has committed $11.5 million to the 1812 commemoration fund, but, as the talking points labelled “Did You Know?” at the government’s site make clear, the official mission is to talk up 1812 as a mirror of the present rather than as a moment in the past. I’ll accept “The War of 1812 is an important milestone in the lead-up to the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation in 2017” and “The end of the war laid the foundation for Confederation and the emergence of Canada as a free and independent nation” as fun facts, but “Under the Crown,  Canada’s society retained its linguistic and ethnic diversity, in contrast to the greater conformity demanded by the American Republic” is a leap into bizarro land that only makes sense if you insist that British North America in 1812 must have had the same priorities as Canada does two centuries later.

Since Canadians don’t all agree about Canada’s present, you can expect the next four years of commemorations to infuriate everyone on a regular basis. Probably for saying unexceptional things that have been said many times before over the last century or so. Fun.

In the contrarian spirit of finding the actual past not just interesting but also worth using to think about the present, I have three wishes for the bicentennial of the War of 1812 that probably won’t make the Globe:

  1. Instead of just talking about the First Nations as loyal allies and unrecognized heroes, let’s acknowledge that they were independent actors who had their own goals and their own expectations. Recognizing the role the First Nations played doesn’t just mean integrating them into the Canadian story, it means acknowledging that they had aims that diverged from those of the Crown.
  2. North America is a big place, and while the bicentennial is already going to have to stretch to encompass two nations that have expanded since they fought in 1812 we shouldn’t forget that the War of 1812 was only part of a bigger history playing out on a global stage. Our War of 1812 was a part of two, maybe even three, global conflicts, and those connections and comparisons should be illuminating as well.
  3. The historian’s mission is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. When it comes to 1812 that means explaining why Canada two centuries ago was not the same as it is today, and also showing how some things we find strange about that era should actually be familiar.

All of this requires discussion, not just diktats. Without ragging on the Globe‘s quiz uneccessarily, let’s just say there’s a reason that history can’t be boiled down to multiple-choice questions. We need real conversations, not just “Did You Know?” declarations. Access to original documents is a good part of this; everyone should have the chance to read some, at least in (digital) facsimile if not in person. With or without them, I’m hoping the next few years will be a good time for discussing history.




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