Last night I had the chance to see James Laxer (Tecumseh and Brock) and D. Peter McLeod (The Four Wars of 1812) talk about their books at Fort York as part of the Parler Fort speaker series. McLeod spoke about the process of creating the Four Wars exhibit he created for the Canadian War Museum, while Laxer focused mostly on the role of Tecumseh and America’s western frontier in staring the war. Then both speakers answered questions from Wayne Reeves, the City of Toronto’s chief historian.
It was a very interesting conversation, with all three of them emphasizing the extent to which Canada lacked a coherent identity in 1812. At the start of the war, it was unclear whether recent immigrants from the United States (so-called Late Loyalists), French-Canadians or the First Nations would fight against the invasion. Despite plenty of good reasons to keep their heads down, all three groups ended up playing critical roles in the defence of Upper and Lower Canada. Intriguingly, Laxer suggested that we think of 1812 as Upper Canada’s war of independence: it was the American invasion and the hazards of wartime that led to the development of a collective identity for Upper Canada.
As a federal institution the War Museum has to present a pan-Canadian story, and McLeod mentioned some of the ways that the war involved and affected the Prairies and the Pacific coast (the Royal Navy captured Fort Astoria in present-day Oregon during the war, in the process nullifying the purchase of the fort from the Americans by the North West Company and leading to a return to American sovereignty after the war, an act which strengthened the US claim to Oregon later in the century).
The whole conversation really solidified my sense that convincing present-day Canadians that the War of 1812 matters to them because it was a Canadian war is going to be a tough sell. Too much of the war took place in southern Ontario, too few of its combatants thought of themselves as Canadian in any sense. That’s too bad, because I think the War of 1812 is actually a quintessentially Canadian war. It was one in which a diverse group of communities (Loyalists, Late Loyalists, Britons, First Nations, Native Americans, French-Canadians, and people from all across Britain’s empire) came together, haphazardly at times but with good will. It was one that was inextricably linked to events in the wider world (the Napoleonic Wars and America’s frontier expansion). It was fought by immigrants (Laura Secord was born in America, as was Governor-General Prevost, while many American soldiers came from Ireland) as well as natives (British colonel Charles de Salaberry, the hero of Châteauguay, was Quebec-born). Together, I think this makes 1812 , in good Canadian fashion, a multicultural war and one that could have resonance for all Canadians—regardless of how connected they feel to the Niagara peninsula and southern Ontario.