As has been widely discussed elsewhere, this year marks the bicentennial of the outbreak of the War of 1812. Although the conflict occurred before Canadian independence, it is nonetheless a critical episode in Canadian history. The repulsion of the American invasion, which Theodore Roosevelt had famously declared would be “a mere matter of marching,” distinguished Canada from its newly independent neighbour to the south. In doing so, it set the stage for the development of a separate Canadian identity that would culminate in Canada’s own peaceful independence half a century later.
It is right that Canadians recognize and celebrate the significance of the War of 1812.
It is also appropriate for the Canadian government to collaborate with the Americans to mark its anniversary. The war, which ended in a stalemate and a return to the status quo ante, settled once and for all the arrival of the United States to the international political stage. In addition, the end of the war marked the beginning of a positive and prosperous relationship between Canada and the United States.
Amidst the commemorations, however, it should always be borne in mind that the historic significance of the War of 1812 is provided by its complex consequences, not any simplistic essence. However one might assess the inherent valour of military action or the righteousness of monarchy, these are not by themselves what make the War of 1812 worth remembering and commemorating.
Yet it sometimes seems that these are the key soundbites the government wishes to extract from the bicentennial: that Canada was the product of military heroes, and that they fought for the Crown as well as the country.
The emphasis on military and monarchy are messages that the government is conveying elsewhere and in other ways as well, ranging from major investments in big-ticket defence equipment to the promulgation of royalty in person and portraiture.
Governments — especially majority governments — are certainly within their political and constitutional remit to determine which policy priorities they wish to pursue. And Canadian leaders have often sought to (re)shape the image of Canada, from William Lyon Mackenzie King’s decision to wait a week before declaring Canada’s participation in the Second World War to Lester Pearson’s push for a new flag.
But something feels less right when our shared history is selectively co-opted to bolster a particular idea of what Canada was, is, and should be.
The War of 1812 is not the only event being commemorated this year — it is also, for instance, the 30th anniversary of the patriation of the Canadian Constitution and the encoding of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Establishing Canadian control over all aspects of the Constitution was the culmination of a long process of increasing Canadian sovereignty. The Charter has formed the basis for many of the most important legal developments of the last three decades, and has been an inspiration to countries around the world struggling to establish an effective rule of law.
However, the government not only did not initiate a major celebration of this anniversary, but in fact vetoed a proposal from the civil service for such a commemoration. Conjectures about partisan motivations were given credibility as the government tried to play up Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s role in developing human rights in Canada at the same time as it played down the Charter associated with Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The 1960 Bill of Rights is worth commemorating, to be sure, but it should be celebrated in addition to rather than at the expense of the Charter.
Canada turns 145 years old this year. The vibrancy of Canada’s democratic culture is demonstrated by the diversity of its political leadership during that time. Canada is a dynamic country with a complex history, and this dynamism and complexity are worthy of celebration.
To celebrate and commemorate only those parts — indeed, those parts of parts — of Canadian history that fit the talking points and policy direction of a particular government is to diminish the true greatness of the Canadian story.