Now that the Olympics is in full swing, we’re seeing the federal government’s War of 1812 ad a lot on Toronto TV (you can watch it here). It’s a slick little piece that focuses on the four heroes the Commemoration Fund has picked to represent Canada: Isaac Brock, Tecumseh, Charles de Salaberry and Laura Secord. British, First Nations, French-Canadian and Late Loyalist (or American), together they neatly triangulate the complexity of the war and the conflict’s popular image. (I talk about multiculturalism of both here.)
Add the advertisement’s hammer-blow narration, though, and you start to see the problem. Sure, I’ll go for “We stood side by side,” but what does “we defended our land” mean? Isaac Brock was a Guernsey-born British officer who wanted nothing more than to get out of the backwater he was sent to and fight the “real” war in Europe; Tecumseh was the leader of a First Nations coalition fighting to create an independent native state in the Old Northwest that wouldn’t be swallowed up by either American or Canadian settlers; even de Salaberry, the symbol of French-Canadian involvement in the war, was a officer commissioned into the British regular army who served outside Canada as much as he served within it.
All four of the Commemoration Fund’s heroes are important figures to remember, but it’s an embarrassment waiting to happen to claim that they reflect how “we defended our land.” Even in an era of conflicting loyalties and loose boundaries (something Alan Taylor puts across so well in the Civil War of 1812), there were people who fought for something that might reasonably be called Canada. The Commemoration Fund could choose to recognize them. Or it could admit that the War of 1812 was something more than just a Canadian war to defend Canada. Or do both. Just sayin’.