The Windsor Star
By Randy Boswell, Central Desk August 16, 2012
After more than a year of fierce, back-channel debates among historians and government officials, Canadian military regiments with links to 200-year-old units that fought in the War of 1812 have finally begun receiving so-called “battle honours” that formally recognize Canadian soldiers’ contributions in at least five major engagements from the war.
While Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced this week that several Canadian regiments will now be recognized for “perpetuating” the 19th-century units that fought in the Battle of Detroit — a key August 1812 victory led by British commander Sir Isaac Brock and allied aboriginal warrior Tecumseh — Postmedia News has learned that similar honours will soon be bestowed to other present-day military units for the Battle of Queenston Heights, the Battle of Chateauguay and the Battle of Crysler’s Farm.
Regiments linked to the 1814 Battle of Niagara, including the St. Catharines, Ont.-based Lincoln and Welland Regiment, also received battle honours earlier this summer at a ceremony that launched what’s now expected to be a host of similar official gestures.
The new federal policy was hailed by the Honour Our 1812 Heroes advocacy group this week as a “noble act of kindness and compassion for our ancestors who fought with merit in the War of 1812.”
The awarding of battle honours from the War of 1812 — a pivotal conflict in North American history that’s currently being marked by bicentennial commemorations across the continent — has the rather prosaic direct effect of allowing a military unit to sew the name of the engagement onto its official regimental colours or flag.
But to military heritage experts, the contentious move to belatedly award the honours to present-day regiments has enormous symbolic importance, finally paying special homage to bygone soldiers while uniting the histories of Canada’s contemporary fighting forces with various predecessor units that successfully defended Canada from American invaders during a crucial, formative phase of Canadian nationhood.
While the federal Conservative government has fervently embraced that narrative in promoting its ambitious, $28-million commemoration program for the war’s bicentennial, Department of National Defence officials had spent years resisting any move to extend the battle honours system to the War of 1812 because the conflict predated Confederation and the Militia Act adopted by the United Province of Canada (colonial-era Quebec and Ontario) in 1855.
While debates about the 1812 honours have been raging for decades, the latest battle over the issue began in earnest last year with the approach of the bicentennial and the formation Honour Our 1812 Heroes.
Jeff Cairns, a retired military officer and chief spokesman for the group, called the outcome of the campaign “really rewarding — more than we could have hoped for.”
The group had set up a website and organized a petition that essentially urged MacKay and Prime Minister Stephen Harper to overrule national defence bureaucrats and finally award battle honours to Canadian regiments legitimately associated with War of 1812 military units.
The prime minister’s father, Joseph Harper, was a military heritage specialist who published two books about regimental flags.
Cairns said earlier proposals by national defence officials to present “commemorative banners” to military regiments fell short of the group’s insistence on full recognition for War of 1812 battles according to long-standing military tradition.
“The original concepts, we thought, were not significant enough,” Cairns, chairman of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment museum, told Postmedia News on Thursday. “The most significant honour one can receive is a battle honour. We saw that as being the only appropriate award to be given — and it was overdue.”
In trying to overcome what Cairns called “the entrenchment of a policy that had existed for a century,” group members had written letters to the government and lobbied federal cabinet ministers.
Among the group’s strongest supporters was the distinguished War of 1812 historian Donald Graves, an adviser to the federal government on the War of 1812 bicentennial and the country’s leading chronicler of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm — a significant British-Canadian victory on a battlefield south of Ottawa that thwarted a U.S. invasion attempt in November 1813.
Graves welcomed the government’s decision and criticized foot-dragging “DND bureaucrats” who had refused to recognize the legitimacy of 1812 battle honours and for whom “Canadian history started in 1867.”
In Wednesday’s announcement about granting honours for the Battle of Detroit, MacKay said the move “formally recognizes the services rendered by the Canadian units that served during the battle.” He added that it “will serve as a reminder of the achievements of those who fought in the War of 1812, and will allow today’s Canadian Forces personnel to honour and remember those who served before them.”