Queenston on and off the field: A Q&A discussion with Adam Shoalts and Cathy Stanton
24 April 2013 – Cathy Stanton
Editors’ note: This conversation responds to Adam Shoalts’ report on the October 2012 bicentennial reenactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights and is part of the collaborative coverage of War of 1812 commemoration in History@Work and The Public Historian. Read more here.
Stanton: Your piece really captures the playfulness and sense of adventure and discovery that reenactments often offer to participants. Yet at the same time, “officialdom” of various kinds is usually involved in staging a big event like this. How much of the success of this event, for you, was due to the more improvisational moments (like your exploration of the cliff path or your infantry partner’s impulsive firing at “Brock”) and how much resulted from the more scripted and managed aspects of the day?
Shoalts: While it is true that I am a former employee of the government agency that oversees Queenston Heights and that I have been involved with quite a number of reenactments, I confess that much of the higher planning that goes into staging these events remains a mystery to me. As someone who is invariably cast in the role of a semi-illiterate common soldier (apparently I suit the part), I have never been able to penetrate the inner circle of senior officers and government staff who gather inside their HQ to hammer out the actual staging of these events. Generally speaking, a framework for the how the reenactment will unfold is devised ahead of time, but within the framework plenty of room is left for “on the field” improvisation. While the prior planning is of course crucial for staging the event and maintaining at least a modicum of historical accuracy (we can’t very well have the Americans win or Brock somehow survive!), the unscripted moments are to my mind the real fun.
Stanton: How big a part of your own day was the unplanned exploration of the cliff path? It sounds as though that added a whole dimension to your participation overall.
Shoalts: The exploration of the cliff path did add a whole another dimension and was probably the highlight of the reenactment for me. It was certainly the most physically demanding aspect of the event, as well as the most rewarding: both from the point-of-view of the historian trying to gain a better understanding of what happened here two centuries ago, and the boy inside me who can’t resist an adventure, particularly in the name of historical research. From my historian’s perspective, I think it is crucial to understand the topography of the site. As for the second part, I always thought there was no reason researching history can’t also be an adventure. Scaling the cliff allowed me to literally retrace the footsteps of the American soldiers who managed to climb it exactly 200 years earlier. I suppose I ought to offer some explanation about how doing so gave me greater insight into the mindset of the Americans on that fateful day, the relative difficulty of the climb, and a better appreciation of the dynamics of the battle. But in reality at the time all I was really focused on was not tumbling several hundred feet down the limestone cliffs of the gorge!
Stanton: I’m curious about your sense of how this bicentennial commemoration is “playing” in Canada. It sounds as though the crowd at the Queenston reenactment was large and enthusiastic, but that’s often the case for a big battle reenactment. I’m wondering whether you think the overall level of public enthusiasm for the bicentennial is proportional to the way the Harper government has been promoting it.
Shoalts: The bicentennial has generated an impressive level of interest in the War of 1812, particularly in regions of Canada where the war cast a long shadow, such as the Niagara Peninsula. War of 1812 academic conferences have been packed with non-academic spectators (standing room only in some cases, with leading historians of the conflict treated like celebrities), Canada’s national media outlets have lavished coverage on the war (reenactors were even on the cover of the country’s leading national news magazine), archaeological digs have been taking place at various sites, and the sheer size of the crowds at the Queenston Heights reenactment and other 1812 commemoration ceremonies is very telling.
Of course, none of this means that “all” Canadians or even a majority are interested in or even aware of the bicentennial, merely that a large number are, which for anything involving Canadian history is quite rare. I don’t think the credit for any of this really belongs with the Harper government. I think the federal government’s role in promoting the war has been somewhat overstated (including by the government itself). Much of the planning for these events has taken place at a grassroots level, with local historical societies, volunteer reenacting groups, local libraries, museums and historic sites playing a big role. It has probably sparked the biggest public interest in Canada’s history since the 1967 centennial celebrations of Canadian Confederation. But to be sure, the War of 1812 and figures like Brock, Laura Secord, and Tecumseh have long been among the most famous in Canadian history, so this is not really surprising. The 2012 bicentennial celebrations are no bigger than the ones that were staged in 1912 for the centennial and in fact are probably smaller.
Stanton: Okay, now you’ve got me wondering what the centennial commemorations were like! I found this CBC News piece on previous big anniversaries of the war, which got me thinking about comparative sesquicentennials: the apparently very muted War of 1812 sesquicentennial in Canada in 1962 and the current sesquicentennial of the American Civil War here in the States. My sense so far of the Civil War observances here (although I realize many of my public history colleagues here may strenuously disagree) is that they really haven’t generated the political and cultural “buzz” of previous big Civil War anniversaries.
This makes me wonder whether there’s something inherently less compelling about 150th anniversaries as opposed to those that mark centuries! Or maybe there’s something similar about the Canada of 1962 and the U.S. of 2013. I’m thinking of things in Canada like the controversy over the Bomarc Missile Program (should Canada arm itself with nuclear warheads?) that brought down the Diefenbaker Government, plus the Quiet Revolution that was gaining momentum in Quebec, and comparing them with the ambiguous aftertaste of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the U.S. and the sense of an internally divided country that’s reflected in an increasingly paralytic federal political system.
Shoalts: I do think that there is something “inherently less compelling about 150th anniversaries as opposed to those that mark centuries.” People seem to like nice round numbers. That said, while the 1912 commemorations of Queenston Heights, the War of 1812, and especially the hero-worship of Sir Isaac Brock were massive, (much larger than the 2012 commemoration), they were actually driven in part by political tensions. The bitter 1911 Canadian election was fought over the issue of free trade with the United States, in which the pro-fee trade Liberals were portrayed as closet American annexations who were betraying the memory of Brock and those who fought to defend Canada in 1812. Brock was frequently invoked to defend both Canada’s independence from the U.S. and Canada’s attachment to the British Empire. It was around 1912 when Brock’s cult reached its zenith: about a dozen different biographies were published on Brock in the 1880-1920 period. Thomas Guthrie Marquis, one of these biographers, even enthusiastically described Brock as “the greatest maker of the Canadian nation” and as the “King Arthur of Canada.”
In contrast, I think most Canadian nationalists today are actually displeased with the Harper government’s treatment of the bicentennial and Brock, as Harper has always been regarded as staunchly pro-U.S., and the consistent theme of his government’s message has been that the bicentennial is about “celebrating 200 years of peace and friendship” and emphasizing Canada’s long role as a close American ally. The old school Canadian nationalists would regard this as blasphemy!
~ Adam Shoalts is an explorer, naturalist, and doctoral candidate in history at McMaster University. Cathy Stanton is a transplanted Canadian who teaches Anthropology at Tufts University and serves as co-editor of History@Work.