Q&A: Resurrecting history – in regency dress

Brockville Recorder and Times

By MEGAN BURKE The Recorder and Times

MEGAN BURKE The Recorder and Times Alicia Wanless takes a break to admire the South Nation River that runs alongside the Spencerville Mill. The break is well deserved as Wanless takes on the large role of manager of the War of 1812 Bicentennial Alliance which she said will be a great hook to bring tourists to our area.


Alicia Wanless, 32, loves to don regency period dress and jumped at the opportunity to become the manager of the St. Lawrence War of 1812 Bicentennial Alliance to do so.


The big Jane Austen fan, who lives near Spencerville, sees the bicentennial as a unique opportunity to provide economic development to the region by appealing to heritage tourists.

The Recorder and Times spoke to Wanless about how heritage tourism can work for the area and the type of events that will garner a lot of attention during the next three years.

Q. When did your fascination with history begin?

A. I’ve always liked history, probably literature pulled me through. Even as a kid my grandparents and parents took me to every pioneer village.

Q. What is your favourite moment in history?

A. My favourite moment? I don’t know if I have a favourite moment. The regency period is very interesting, but also I’d have to say the 1940s with World War II and the impact it had. A lot of times what I find interesting is the social impact of different eras and events and what that does to the human psyche and how it changes society.

Q. How much work have you taken on as bicentennial manager of the alliance?

A. My role is mostly to facilitate, support and promote bicentennial activities, so a lot of that comes down to marketing. Basically it’s about putting people together and also making sure that everybody in the rest of the world knows we’re here.

Q. What does your ‘to do’ list look like?

A. Oh dear. A lot of it is coming up with content. We write a lot of articles for publications. Organizing the marketing campaign for three of the big events, coming up with creative campaigns, that’s probably the biggest challenge. How do we do stuff that on a very limited budget can have a very large impact. I manage an online community. It’s a lot. I could go on and on and on.

Q. Have you been getting help?

A. The communities have been great. One of the best things about Eastern Ontario is the sense of community and how people really step up. It is such a refreshing return to live in a rural area. People are eager to help.

Q. What is it like to market a war?

A. While there’s a lot of fun to be had with dressing up and participating, it isn’t a romanticization of the past and it isn’t a glorification of war. Men died, it was pretty horrible.

But if this helps keep the memory of those things alive then it’s important. It’s a fine line; how do you do this and have respect? It’s very important to keep commemorations separate from celebrations.

Q. What do you think of an event that lasts three years?

A. It’s a peculiar challenge from a marketing perspective. How to get interest and sustain it over a longer period of time. Our big year is really 2013 because of Chrysler’s Farm, and that’s a major event for Canada but also in our region. I look at that as the apex.

If we can maintain attention up until then, the end of 2013 I think we will have done really well. Hopefully by the time that’s over we will have created these networks and fostered a sense of heritage tourism that wasn’t there before.

Q. Is heritage tourism one of your big beliefs?

A. I think it’s a market segment that’s underdeveloped. It’s about 10 to 30 per cent of the total market share and I don’t see them being targeted in marketing campaigns.

Heritage tourism is really about going to the places and experiencing people and actions and things that happened in the past. One of the things that is missing in that is coming up with ways that people feel they really took part in something. Build this whole world that is gone and lost.

Q. Plus you enjoy seeing men in regency clothing?

A. Absolutely, it’s very flattering. The regency period is flattering for everyone. It hides everything.

Q. What does the bicentennial offer us?

A. It presents us with a really great stage for attracting people to a series of really big events. And if we play our cards right, if we get our businesses involved and actually offer experiences that are really unique, I think we can bring people back. Maybe we can attract new people to live here. Instead of just saying come to my one town, we’re offering the area to the visitor. There’s a pull that brings them along. The idea is to get them to stay.

Q. How many individual events are there in our region?

A. I lost track. I’d say probably at least 100 events, and that counts everything from a play to a small community event. This year we have four or five really big events.

Q. When is the first one?

A. Garrison Weekend will be pretty big for Prescott and that’s on the May long weekend. They are basically garrisoning the fort with re-enactors. They’ll have dancing, a fashion show, re-enacting the battle, also our 1812 dinner series we run in Prescott will take place that weekend.

Q. Which event are you most excited for?

A. They all offer something different. In my spare time I organize the Spencerville Heritage Fair. That was my baby so I’m excited to see that happen. I’m excited for Garrison weekend. It’s the first time Fort Wellington has done anything like that. I’d love to see how their event comes off. Gananoque has a great event in August, which is a larger scaled re-enactment… Brockville has a tall ships festival in 2013 and the city is bringing the family of Sir General Isaac Brock in. Obviously Chrysler’s Farm is really the pinnacle of everything that will happen here.

Q. What is the most interesting thing you have learned about the War of 1812?

A. I think the role of women is always interesting. Life was pretty hard in Upper Canada. Mostly they’re clearing land, just trying to get by living. I think of the resiliency of humans and how they carved a life out of nothing and how it was threatened, at least in the context of the War of 1812.

What I was really surprised about was just how important the St. Lawrence River was. If the Brits had lost the St. Lawrence they would have lost the war.

Q. Do you feel you were born in the wrong century?

A. No. I wouldn’t want to be born in any other time. As a woman, I like modern conveniences. I’d much rather dress up and be a history traveller.

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