Re-manufacturing 1812: Stephen Harper's glorious vision of Canada's past
29 April 2013 – Matthew Barlow
digital media, public engagement, government, international, politics, War of 1812, Canada, Stephen Harper
2012 was a big year for Canadians. We celebrated two important anniversaries: the thirtieth of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which made revolutionary changes in the way Canadian law works, and the two hundredth of the War of 1812. We Canadians have a quaint reputation in the States as peaceful, pacifistic, hockey-playing neighbours. So, which of these anniversaries do you think the Canadian government–now ruled with an iron fist by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper–spent millions of dollars commemorating? If you answered the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, you’d be wrong.
In the general scheme of North American history, the War of 1812 was not a watershed moment. It was a kind of embarrassing denouement between the Americans and British, a kind of settling of old scores from the American Revolution. If we are to believe historian Alan Taylor, the War of 1812, which neither side won, was a cross between a continuation of the American War of Independence and a civil war. The bulk of the fighting was between the British and the Americans, with people switching sides quite frequently. On the British-Canadian side, most of the volunteers were the so-called Loyalists, who had fled the newly-independent U.S. for British North America in the 1780s. And even at that, people switched sides in the war with alarming regularity.
I have written before on Harper’s fascination with inventing a glorious military past for Canada. Leftist historian Ian McKay and social activist Jamie Swift have written an entire book on the subject. They point out that in the wake of the two World Wars and a rising québécois nationalist movement, Canada shook off the shackles of the British Empire and embarked upon an independent-minded foreign policy.
After the Second World War, Canada downsized its military and shifted its resources into U.N. Peacekeeping, a concept invented during the 1956 Suez Crisis by diplomat and eventual Prime Minster and Nobel Laureate Lester B. Pearson. Both Liberal and pre-Harper Conservative governments supported and celebrated—albeit unevenly–Canada’s peacekeeping tradition. But under the current government, Canada has much more a muscular foreign policy, supported by an attempt to re-invent our national past and mythology by highlighting its more militarist and imperialist aspects.
Enter the War of 1812. The shift is obvious from the government’s official webpage celebrating the war. The Prime Minister himself welcomes visitors to the site: “The War of 1812 was a seminal event in the making of our great country. On the occasion of its 200th anniversary, I invite all Canadians to share in our history and commemorate our proud and brave ancestors who fought and won against enormous odds. As we near our country’s 150th anniversary in 2017, Canadians have an opportunity to pay tribute to our founders, defining moments, and heroes who fought for Canada.”
The website goes on to whip Canadian patriotism into a lather, at the expense of the Americans, of course. Did you know that “Canada would not exist had the American invasion of 1812-15 been successful”? Um, yeah. But “facts” like this one are highly debatable. No one “fought for Canada” in 1812, and the 1812-15 war had little, if any, bearing on the creation of an independent Canadian nation more than half a century later. The American attempts at invasion were sporadic and unsuccessful, and the war overall was essentially a draw.
The 1812.gc.ca website hasn’t been all that successful. Canadians’ general knowledge about the war remains slim, and while as an historian I should be wringing my hands about this, in some ways it seems preferable to having my compatriots swallow the version offered up by the government. But that version is being promoted through other, more widely-seen channels, particularly through a series of Hollywood-esque TV and YouTube ads commissioned by the Harper government. These ads played in movie theatres and on TV last year and were ubiquitous during the 2012 London Olympics. During the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, they even managed to break through the wall of truck and beer ads. If so much money wasn’t wasted on these ads, they’d be laugh-worthy.
The ads are all high drama, complete with the ominous narrative voiceover. Americans invaded “our land” in 1812. Laura Secord is running through the woods. We defended “our land.” “We stood side-by-side” as we see British General Isaac Brock, Mohawk Chief Tecumseh and Lower-Canadian-born British Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Salaberry nod to each other. The Americans stand across the battlefield, nervous and scared. “And we WON the fight for Canada.”
As with the website, there are lots of ways to pick holes in the “facts” here. “Our land” greatly oversimplifies the multiple sovereignties of the various European, North American, and First Nations involved in the war. Brock, Tecumseh, and de Salaberry never fought side-by-side. And de Salaberry, a French Canadian, did not have a British-Canadian accent. But the larger problem is the scale of the attempt to shape popular understandings of this war.
Certainly history gets used to multiple ends every day, and very often by governments. But it is rare that we get to watch a government of a peaceful democracy so fully rewrite a national history to suit its own interests and outlook, to remove or play down aspects of that history that have long made Canadians proud, and to magnify moments that serve no real purpose other than the government’s very particular view of the nation’s past and present. The paranoiac in me sees historical parallels with the actions of the Bolsheviks in the late 1910s and early 1920s in Russia. The Bolshevik propaganda sought to construct an alternate version of Russian history; in many ways, Canada’s prime minister is attempting the same thing. The public historian in me sees a laboratory for the manufacturing of a new usable past on behalf of an entire nation, and a massive nation at that.
~ John Matthew Barlow is current Visiting Lecturer at Salem State University, and a Canadian transplant in Boston. The Twitter clips illustrating this post represent some of his more in-the-moment musings on the Harper government’s re-writing of the War of 1812 in the form of tweets and re-tweets on the subject.
Please don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. True, some controversy exists with the Government of Canada’s commemorations of the War of 1812. Nonetheless, to condemn the subject as a whole, repeatedly and with reckless abandon, goes against the spirit of historical inquiry. Moreover, to label it as insignificant to the history of Canada is wrong.
There may be reasons for the historian to quibble with the commemoration. We’re trained to critique assembled facts and interpretation. In the context of an effort to popularize and dramatize a subject to a wide audience, the targets will naturally be numerous. A different, fact-based approach is required, however, before most will accept the serious allegation that Canada’s history has been wholly “manufactured” for political purposes only. For example, George Sheppard’s 1994 book “Plunder, Profit and Paroles: A Social History of the War of 1812 in Upper Canada,” offers insightful challenges to the myths of the war.
Some additional fact-checking is in order. Tecumseh was Shawnee, not Mohawk. Charles de Salaberry, while French Canadian, spent five years as a young man in England. He also spent most of his professional life in close quarters with British soldiers. He therefore could have easily acquired a slight English accent.
Military history may not be en vogue, but no one can deny the significance of early conflicts, and their legacy, on the development of modern Canada.
Thanks for the comments, Stuart. The War of 1812 is not significant to Canada in the way that Harper and his government interpret it, it did not lead to the formation of Canada. Certainly, concerns about the USA remained in the minds of Canadian politicians after 1812, we both know why the Rideau Canal was built and why Ottawa is the capital of Canada. But the American threat was more of an imagined boogeyman by the 1860s.
As for commemoration, I’ve got no problem with it, in fact, it’s what I study and write about primarily. But, some historical accuracy is necessary, especially when it’s part of a government propaganda programme. Simply put, Harper’s emphasis on our military past and our glory is not accurate. Canada does have a strong and proud military tradition, true, but this has not been in the mainstream of Canadian life, except during World Wars. Our dreams of Empire were tied up with the British.
I resent my tax money going to ahistorical propaganda when the rest of the time the government is claiming we are in dangerous economic times and that same government is cutting funding for social programmes and scientific research. I also find it more than slightly curious that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which, arguably, has had a much greater effect on Canadian life than the War of 1812, was all but ignored by the current government.
As for military history, I think it should be back in vogue. Have you read Alan Taylor’s recent book on the War of 1812? There is a lot we can learn from military history, to say nothing of the culture that grows up in and around the military and times of war.
I think that your critique of these ads may be just as biased as the ads themselves.