Friday July 27, 2012
Two hundred years later, there are still battles to be fought from the War of 1812.
At stake are the lasting memorials to the only soldiers who ever fought a war on Canadian soil. Taking up the torch in their memory are Heritage Mississauga and the Southern Georgian Bay War of 1812 Bicentennial Committee, acting on behalf of seven bicentennial committees across the province.
Together, they are seeking about $233,000 from the Department of Canadian Heritage to go ahead with their project of identifying veterans’ graves, which would include the placing of a special marker at each burial site.
The groups, who worked on their proposals independently, were told in March their funding request had been denied by the ministry’s War of 1812 commemoration fund.
The outcome of the next battle appears more promising. After a groundswell of support from the public and some MPs, and following enquiries from the Star, the Heritage ministry says it is reconsidering its decision.
“We are absolutely committed to honouring the final resting places of those who served in the War of 1812,” said Heritage Minister James Moore’s director of communications, James Maunder. “The minister has said this is something we need to do. So we will work with these organizations. We are committed to funding them.”
The fund was set up in 2011 to “foster greater awareness” about the conflict. The ministry committed $28 million, over four years, for everything from historical re-enactments to artwork.
The War of 1812 saw American forces invade British North America over its outrage at Britain for a number of reasons, including trade restrictions. Between 1812 and 1814, British troops, aided by English- and French-speaking militiamen and First Nations allies, successfully repelled American invasions.
The end result has been described by some as a defining moment for the national identity of Canada, which wasn’t even officially born until Confederation in 1867.
Both Heritage Mississauga and the Southern Georgian Bay committee were told they had been turned down because of the high volume of requests for commemorative project funding that flooded in from across the country.
The groups want money to essentially produce the same thing: a granite marker over the veteran’s resting place, indicating he fought in the War of 1812. On top would be a facsimile of the Upper Canada Preserved Medal — a medal that was supposed to be given to war veterans for their service, but was ultimately distributed to very few.
The Southern Georgian Bay committee had asked for $184,000 in federal funding to produce 1,000 plaques for placement on actual burial sites throughout the province, as well as 50 interpretative plaques to be placed at the entrance of cemeteries.
Each plaque would cost about $200, said Downer, who explained that while the 50 interpretative plaques are larger, they are made of much thinner material. Among the seven bicentennial committees across the province, between 200 and 500 burial sites have been identified, and the search continues for more. Various groups have been plowing through archives to deduce where combatants were buried.
Heritage Mississauga had asked for $49,000 in federal dollars for a project estimated to cost about $149,000 that would include 75 plaques for burial sites (about $245 each), eight interpretative panels, a heritage booklet for educational purposes, and tour guides.
Both Heritage Mississauga and the Southern Georgian Bay committee would also like to see a federal online database containing the names of War of 1812 combatants.
Maunder said it was not “unrealistic” to assume that funding may be granted to at least Heritage Mississauga before the end of the year. But of course, nothing is guaranteed, said Lyn Downer, chair of the Southern Georgian Bay committee.
“This is something we have to do now,” said Downer, who confirmed that his group was asked to resubmit its application two weeks ago. “If the funding is not confirmed during the bicentennial, I don’t think we’ll find interest for funding this ever again.”
Heritage Mississauga’s executive director, Jayme Gaspar, said her organization was understanding but disappointed when they first found out that they had been denied.
“These soldiers made very important contributions. They built our country and now their gravestones have deteriorated,” she said.
Gaspar said Friday that she had not yet heard from Canadian Heritage regarding its decision to reconsider her group’s funding request, but she called it “wonderful.”
Headstones from War of 1812 combatants can be found in cemeteries in places such as Mississauga, Burlington, Brampton and the Niagara Region. But vandalism and the passage of time have left many in disrepair.
That neglect is often the result of no family members left to tend them, limited funds from churches and cemeteries to maintain headstones, and the lack of a federal department responsible for maintaining grave sites.
Veterans Affairs Canada will help pay for funeral and burial arrangements for veterans of the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War, but only if they qualify under the Last Post Fund, which assists families who cannot cover the costs themselves.
Should Veterans Affairs issue to eligible veterans a military-style marker (a grey granite slab engraved with the person’s rank and regiment), the department would then be responsible for maintaining it in perpetuity.
History buffs argue that the families of War of 1812 veterans never had an opportunity for such assistance, as Veterans Affairs did not yet exist. So, many were buried under wooden crosses or limestone markers, which deteriorate faster than granite.
Upkeep of War of 1812 gravesites definitely doesn’t fall under the British government’s responsibility, confirmed Ben Wilkinson, a spokesman with Britain’s Ministry of Defence.
The situation is different south of the border. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Jo Schuda confirmed that “if someone could be shown as having been a veteran, regardless of the conflict, we could provide a marker. It would indicate, among other things, years of active duty.”
Heritage Mississauga historian Matthew Wilkinson said he has tracked down 57 War of 1812 veterans interred in the area so far, and about three dozen actual burial sites.
“There should be a leadership body, such as Canadian Heritage, saying: Here’s an acceptable design for a grave marker that everybody can use,” he said. “We talk so seldom about the War of 1812, and there are not many memorials erected for the veterans. We don’t even recognize them on cenotaphs, technically because they’re considered British.”