War of 1812: Canadian identity developed in the crucible of combat


Parks Canada

Parks Canada

A musket-firing re-enactment at Fort Chambly National Historic Site.

The War of 1812 is being commemorated across Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces this summer with dramatic public events marking the 200th anniversary of the American invasion of Canada.

Among the most imposing events to date was the massing of five tall sailing ships and hundreds of historical re-enactors at Fort George in present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake. Dressed in period costumes, volunteers in uniforms and clothing appropriate to the era gathered at the fort to recreate a battle. An American attack on Fort George in May 1813 resulted in heavy casualties and an American victory, although the U.S. forces would abandon the fort before the end of the year.

The bicentennial highlights a period of tremendous significance for Canadians.

Before the war, “none of the people in these British colonies felt any sort of affinity for anyone from the other British provinces,” said Ron Dale, Parks Canada’s War of 1812 bicentennial manager. The American destruction of life and property — resisted equally by settlers, British troops and native warriors — bound them together into a new group who began thinking of themselves as Canadians. “Having faced a common enemy, it gave them a common feeling that they had all suffered under similar circumstances,” Mr. Dale said.

There will be many more anniversary events as the summer continues. At Fort George, for instance, military re-enactors will be joined by historic fife and drum corps from both Canada and the United States on Aug. 18-19 for the Fife and Drum Muster and Soldier’s Field Day.

In Ottawa, the Canadian War Museum exhibition — titled simply “1812” — features perspectives on the war from the standpoints of four very different participants. The first is Laura Secord, the heroic figure who warned British and native troops of an impending American attack and effectively foiled it. The second is Francis Scott Key, the American lawyer and poet who wrote the lyrics of the American national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner. The third perspective belongs to the native warrior Oshawana and the fourth to an anonymous sailor in the British Royal Navy.

Events related to the war are also being held in the following locations: Carleton Martello tower National Historic Site in Saint John, N.B.; Signal Hill in St. John’s, Nfld.; The Citadel in Halifax, N.S.; and at additional sites in Ontario and Quebec. The Niagara Parks Commission is staging a number of bicentennial events, including the siege of Fort Erie re-enactment with 500 participants on Aug. 11-12 and the storming of Fort Niagara re-enactment on Sept. 1-2.

“No other region in North America can claim British, American, Canadian, native and naval operations combined in one area for the same length of time and on the scale of events in Niagara,” said Jim Hill, the commission’s superintendent of heritage. “Over half the casualties of the war took place within 40 miles of the Niagara River. The forts, battlefields, canals and road network of this region are all legacies of the war.”

The 1812 observances in the Niagara region have attracted dignitaries and large crowds of people from both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. “The visit of Governor General David Johnston marking the declaration of war on Queenston Heights, retired General Rick Hillier with modern veterans in Fort Erie and a recent event in Buffalo, N.Y., with Americans, Canadians and First Nations represented, all had an effect that in this busy time I frankly didn’t expect,” Mr. Hill said.

Although the bicentennial recalls two years of bloody conflict, the peace and friendship that has existed between Canada and the United States for the two centuries since is very much to the fore this year.

“Living here today, we will commemorate this difficult time for the people of Niagara,” Mr. Hill said. “But we are celebrating 200 years of friendship with our nearby American cousins.”

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