Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

An Obscure Bicentennial

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An Obscure Bicentennial

INVASION FORCE BURNS US CAPITAL! PRESIDENT FORCED TO FLEE TO VIRGINIA! FOREIGN OFFICERS EAT HIS DINNER!
YANKEES SACK TORONTO, REFUSE TO PAY GST!
BEAUTIFUL SPY BRIBES US SOLDIERS WITH MILK CHOCOLATE MADE FROM PET COW, SNEAKS SECRET MESSAGE TO BRITISH LIEUTENANT!
PRIVATEERS PLAGUE ATLANTIC, CARIBBEAN, LAKE ONTARIO!

The headlines -- with a few National Enquirer-style embellishments -- sound like they're from the trailer of an unlikely new Hollywood movie. But they all refer to events during the mostly-forgotten War of 1812 198 years ago between the USA (and a few Native allies) and Britain and its colonies, including Canada, aided by a much larger group of Natives headed by Tecumseh. Historians now seem to feel that the war was not a serious attempt by the US to take Canadian territory, but more a negotiating strategy to pressure the Brits on issues such as the British blockade of US vessels trading with the French. US President James Madison famously predicted that conquering Canada was just a matter of marching up there. Britain and its military resources were preoccupied by the Napoleonic wars in Europe, but its soldiers, available ships, and Canadian and Indian allies proved tougher than Madison thought.
It was largely a series of naval engagements, with US and British ships confronting each other all the way from the Great Lakes down the Atlantic coast to northern South America. Most land battles did not result in long-term territorial gains, and no borders were changed by the Treaty of Ghent that ended the war. Fort York, now a Toronto historic site, was briefly captured by the Americans during their raid on what was then named York. I had the experience of going to a school run by the US embassy for Grade 6 and 7 in Iraq; there I learned how the Americans had won the war of 1812. This struck me as funny, since I remembered how in Canada I had heard how the Brits, Canadians, and their brave Native allies had gained the upper hand.
One might expect the coming bicentennial of the only war between Canada and the US to inspire some new books and movies, maybe even a re-enactment (we could cover the White House in maple syrup to protest Stephen Colbert's description of Canucks as "syrup-suckers"). But so far, I've heard nothing about any such commemorations.
Who out there is ready to take on Pierre Berton's mantle (he wrote The Invasion of Canada 1812-1813) and give us a new dramatic account of this strange little war? Berton felt that its outcomes included Canada developing a stronger sense of itself as a potential nation, and Ontario remaining part of Canada rather than joining its bumptious southern neighbour. Today, many artifacts of the war persist in popular culture. There's the tale of Laura Secord (she did not, in fact, use a cow as cover to cross American lines, just her knowledge of back routes through the swamp and woods) and the candy store chain named after her. There's the memorial to Sir Isaac Brock and the eponymous university in Saint Catharines. The influx of British Empire Loyalists from the US to Canada during and after the war included a group of freed slaves who established the historic African-Canadian community in Nova Scotia. Stan Rogers' ever-popular song "Barrett's Privateers", by the way, is thought to be set in the late 18th-century, not the war of 1812.
There's also a lesson about how communities can ignore their national masters when it comes to war. The border towns of St. Stephen, NB and Calais (pronounced "callous" by locals) in Maine have long traded, intermarried, colluded in smuggling and otherwise been good neighbours. When informed by London and Washington that there was now a war on, and they should do their patriotic duty, here's one thing that happened:
"As evidence of the longtime friendship between the towns, during the War of 1812, the British military provided St. Stephen with a large supply of gunpowder for protection against the enemy Americans in Calais, but the town elders gave the gunpowder to Calais for its Fourth of July Independence Day (United States) celebrations..."
In fact, all of New England opted out of the war, preferring to continue trading with Britain and its colonies. The lack of efficient communications, in a war that predated the telegraph and railway in North America, meant much confusion and delay. For example, the Battle of New Orleans, celebrated in Johnny Horton's song, was fought after the war had ended but before the news could get from Europe to the USA.
A confusing, optional, and inconclusive war? There are certainly echoes of some of today's conflicts (Iraq and Afghanistan) in this two-year slice of history. Let's not forget it entirely.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page