Tristin Hopper Jun 23, 2012
Postmedia News files
A War of 1812 re-enactment. Although the Iroquois originally planned to stay neutral in the war, Six Nations warriors ultimately sided with both Americans and British forces — something “that has left a bad taste in their mouth for 200 years.”
Even before War of 1812 commemoration ceremonies could officially begin, a disagreement over scheduling has already driven a wedge between organizers looking to tout the historic conflict as a triumphant “war for Canada” and aboriginal members of the Six Nations who still view the event as a brutal struggle that split their confederacy and decimated their population.
A planned delegation of Six Nations dancers and leaders were notably absent last Saturday when Governor General David Johnston gathered with red-coated re-enactors on Niagara Peninsula’s Queenston Heights battlefield to mark the official start of the Bicentennial. After weeks of preparation, the Six Nations cancelled their attendance amid allegations that, at the last minute, they had been pushed to the bottom of the program by worried organizers.
“I think what happened to a certain extent is that it was a celebration and we were kind of spoiling it,” said Keith Jamiesen, director of the Six Nations Legacy Consortium. “Organizers told me, ‘we just want the Governor General to have a nice day.’”
Although the Iroquois originally planned to stay neutral in the war, Six Nations warriors ultimately sided with both Americans and British forces.
By the 1814 Battle of Chippewa, Seneca warriors allied with the U.S. were attacking snipers under British-allied Mohawk chief John Norton.
Canadian War Museum
Portrait of British-allied Mohawk chief John Norton
“They were fighting their brothers from across the river and that has left a bad taste in their mouth for 200 years,” said Mr. Jamiesen, saying it was a two-year struggle just to convince Iroquois representatives to make an appearance.
“They said ‘we will participate, but it is not to be a celebration, it is to be a commemoration,’” he said.
Tim Johnson, a Six Nations member and co-chair of a working group to establish an aboriginal memorial at Queenston Heights, said the conflict was a landmark of European-aboriginal co-operation.
“Part of the goal we had with the [memorial] project is the notion of reconciliation, and the reconnecting and reaffirmation of the alliances between native and non-native peoples,” said Mr. Johnson.
A pair of rented buses were to have taken approximately 60 Six Nations delegates to the event.
After a musical performance, the Six Nations had planned a ceremony featuring two ceremonial belts.
One, which dates back to the 18th century, symbolizes the pre-war alliance between the British and the Iroquois. The second was presented at the close of the war by British Indian Department Agent Col. William Claus.
“We were going to say ‘this was what got us into the war and this is what concluded the war,’” said Mr. Jamiesen.
With less than two weeks to go before the ceremony, however, organizers quickly redrafted the day’s program after getting word that Mr. Johnston would be making an appearance.
According to Mr. Jamiesen, the new plan was to have the delegation dance while Mr. Johnston roamed through the crowd greeting spectators.
As for the belt ceremony, the delegation were told to hold off until the Governor General had left the premises, said Mr. Jamiesen.
The Claus belt, which was only recently repatriated from the Smithsonian Institute, does indeed carry some cringe-worthy historical undertones.
When Claus first presented the belt in 1815, he assured the Six Nations that they would forever retain “Peaceable Possession of all the Country which you possessed before the late War.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Jamiesen said the ceremony was not meant as a protest.
“It was not intended to cause embarrassment for the Governor General, it was to honour this pledge between us,” he said.
In a statement, the Niagara 1812 Bicentennial Legacy Council said the Six Nations were given the largest time allotment on the program and were given final billing as organizers thought it would be an “an appropriate finale to the ceremony.”
Throughout the ceremony, “the governor general would have still been present and on stage” wrote spokeswoman Katie Farr in an email to the Post.
A Rideau Hall representative said only that “the Governor General had a speaking role at the opening ceremony.”
“Our office has no further comments,” she said.