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The war of 1812 changed lives all along the Niagara frontier. it was savage on land and on the water where British and American warships fought for control of the great lakes. WBFO News contributor Rich Rellman reports on this bicentennial of the war of 1812.
Brian Campbell of Belmont, near London, Ontario can trace his ancestry back to the 1600’s in what is now the United States. “A lot of Canadians have roots south of the border,” said Campbell. But in October 1812, everyone north of the border was reminded that they were not Americans. That’s when U.S. troops crossed the Niagara River from Lewiston and launched a failed invasion of Canada at Queenston Heights.
“I have one ancestor who was here at Queenston,” says Brian. “He lived to tell the tale, and it’s kind of neat to be here today.”
Brian Campbell stands near the base of the huge memorial on Queenston Heights to British General Sir Isaac Brock. You can see it from Lewiston, towering above the Niagara River.
Brock died early in the battle, leading the defense of the Canadian colonies against the American invaders. Brian says, ”Canada doesn’t regard itself as having a whole lot of heroes. Brock is certainly one of the big ones.”
The United States claimed it invaded Canada to put pressure on the British for capturing American sailors and hindering US trade on the high seas off Europe. But Campbell believes that was only part of the story.
“It was an excuse to invade Canada,” said Campbell. “Other generations invaded Iraq, other generations invade other countries using whatever excuses they can muster, and it’s gone on for a very long time.”
Many Canadians share that viewpoint, and why not? They were, after all, protecting their homes from invaders. Bryce Honsinger teaches history at Applewood Public School in St. Catharines, Ontario.
“My great-great-great-great-grandfather was 59 when he volunteered in 1812,” said Hosinger. “He fought at Queenston. He didn’t make it through the rest of the war, but he fought, and I tend to believe it was because of that pride. He wanted to keep his home safe.”
The War of 1812 gave the colonists a sense of pride in protecting the place where they lived, a sense of nationhood. They would later become what we now know as Canada.
“For Canadians, there wouldn’t be a Canada if the war had gone differently, There’d just be a bigger United States,” says Jim Hill, Heritage Director of Canada’s Niagara Parks. He agrees that there are differences between the US and Canada.
“There is in the American story a sense of opportunity. The Canadian narrative is about survival. I always tell people, watch how people line up at a Dunkin’ Donuts. They don’t,” he says with a laugh. “Watch them line up at a Tim Hortons, It’s like a strict queuing-up rule, like the British would appreciate.”
The U.S. took the opportunity to invade Canada, while the Canadians took pride in fighting off the invaders and surviving as a nation. Says history teacher Bryce Honsinger, “You definitely can see that the Canadian people that were here actually won, because they maintained their identity. And on top of that, they’ve actually developed a sense of who they are and who they’re not.”
Honsinger’s classroom in St. Catharines is abuzz with kids talking and writing about what happened in the war. He moves among them, questions them. “Why do you think a gentleman who was 64 years old was willing to volunteer and fight?”
“Loved his country,” says a girl.
“Loved his country,” Honsinger affirms. “That’s right, there’s pride.”
We ask where the Canadian colonists came from.
“A lot of the people here, actually all of the people here in St. Catharines in particular had gotten their lands as land grants for being loyal to King George the Third during the American Revolution,” he says. “They had left the United States, lost their farms, my family being one of them, came here, started a new life with nothing, and all of a sudden here we go again. It’s like the second revolution. It really started to bring us together with who we became in 1867,” when Canada became a nation. “It started us on the road.”
Bryce teaches his students to be skeptical about what they hear and read about history. Sixth grader Melanie Riley just read an article about Canadian hero Laura Secord. “That article may not be entirely true. The grandfather would have been, like, telling his grandchildren, ‘oh, I went on this big adventurous walk with my aunt.”
“Do you think that happens a lot in history?” we ask.
“Yes, I do,” she replies, “because, like, people want to make it exciting.”
The War, of course, was exciting enough. Back at the Brock Monument on Queenston Heights, we ask Brian Campbell, “Any animosity toward the Americans?
“None whatsoever,” he says.
“How is that possible? We were invaders.”
Brian grins and replies, “Oh, I think my ancestry is such that probably if somebody was in New York State before 1900, I’m probably related to 50 percent of you,” and laughs.
In a sense, it was a war between family and friends and neighbors, that was ignited by a global dispute far beyond the control of anyone on either side of the Niagara Frontier.