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1812 and the Canadian Century

Using an old war to create a new country

The Mapquest route from downtown New Orleans to Chalmette Battlefield leads through the lower Ninth Ward, where the dikes failed, and the Federal Emergency Management Administration failed, and Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath is still, seven years later, the dominant historical event written into the landscape.

On a recent trip there, we saw German tourists and some neighbors with dogs to walk strolling at sundown at the Chalmette Battlefield. It’s a pretty place, downstream a bit from the worst of the storm damage. It’s where Andrew Jackson led American forces in a rout of the British in the last American battleground of the War of 1812. The Navy recently organized a flotilla of tall ships to commemorate that battle, which had the distinction of having been waged after the American ambassador had signed the peace treaty with Britain. In 1959, American kids with transistor radios sang along with Jimmy Driftwood’s lyrics about Colonel Jackson and the British: “They ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles, and they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go. They ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch ’em, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”

In 1959, there wasn’t a song on the radio about the British burning Buffalo, nor about the Americans burning Niagara. This year, on its bicentennial, the only song Americans will sing that has any connection to the War of 1812 is the one written by a lawyer about the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the one that turned into our national anthem. Most of the American money being spent on the 1812 bicentennial is being spent in Baltimore, in whose harbor occurred the rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air, etc. Beyond Baltimore, there isn’t much going on, despite the patient and enthusiastic efforts of Tom Schofield, a Buffalo attorney who has invested uncounted hours as a leader of the binational Niagara 1812 Legacy Council. Former Governor David Paterson protested budget constraints in turning down the council’s request for funding.

Across the Niagara, however, there are big doings ahead. Next weekend, starting Friday, are the opening ceremonies for a three-year schedule of observances, meetings, parties, reenactments, and what can only be described as national self-awareness sessions. From the beginning, there will be a formidable presence of Six Nations participants, because when war was formally commenced on June 18, 1812, the British were not going it alone. The Brock Monument in Queenston Heights will be the center of much activity; Brock was the British military leader who repelled the American invasion and died in that nation-defining battle. On Monday, June 18, the actual anniversary, there will be a “special Canadian Citizenship Ceremony” at Mather Arch in Fort Erie.

Before 9/11, the Mather Arch was the place known to Buffalo-area Americans as the big war memorial where the annual Friendship Festival is held. Trashy loud music, trashy midway food, rides, cotton candy and such, fireworks, plus some cute Canadian stuff like Highland games (ethnic privilege talking here) made the Fort Erie counterpart of our Fourth of July celebrations very cozy, even if not too many of us know that July 1 is Canada Day.

But this year, Mather Arch, which on closer inspection is mainly a tribute to the horrific Canadian casualties of World War I, takes on another purpose—namely, to command attention to the specific geography of national sacrifice. This is the country where on November 11, everyone wears red poppies for Remembrance Day, because in Flanders Fields, as the poem that American schoolchildren are no longer taught has it, so many red poppies bloomed. The roster of Canadian events for the 1812 bicentennial is initially heavy on celebrating two centuries of peace between us and them. This is a sensible thing for the smaller of the two countries to emphasize. But the three-year bicentennial commemorations include lots of non-peace.

Grandmother’s country

This year is Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary as queen. There have been some fairly serious riots in Montreal for the past six weeks, but it’s been students protesting a proposed 75 percent tuition increase, not French-speaking Quebec separatists protesting les maudites Anglaises in Elizabeth’s year of jubilee. At a recent dinner for a Canadian author’s new book, the toast to the queen was natural, easy, and not only untroubled by irony or camp, but quite defiant. It’s not just the martial tradition, though Robert Kaplan, author An Empire Wilderness and of numerous accounts of the contemporary American military, notes that everybody in uniform takes the Canadians seriously. It’s a new self-assuredness.

Part of it is the oil boom, the new one, the one which a much more mature political culture is not going to allow to be wasted. Americans all confused about whether to allow a new Keystone pipeline for filthy Alberta tar-sands oil? Fine, the Canadians said: We’ll pump it across the Rockies and sell it to the Chinese. And get richer.

Part of it is the immigration boom. Several years ago, demographers began noting that almost half the population of Toronto is foreign-born. More recently, the Toronto Globe and Mail has been running articles, posting videos, and encouraging a movement to dramatically increase immigration into Canada. This is no secret to the rest of the world: When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports year after year after year that Canada is the best place on earth to do business, every educated person from every less-than-best-place listens up. Lots of them have been landing at Pearson, too.

And then there’s the messaging from Canadian intellectuals, civic leaders, and now, from the throne itself. The last throne speech, which is a speech delivered by the queen’s representative but written by the prime minister, was very strong on forging a specifically Canadian identity for all the welcome newcomers to this shore. Some observers were concerned, in the last national election, about the unseemly ethnic bloc vote-pandering that was going on, as national politicians sucked up as embarrassingly as any American pols do as they flitted from mosque to temple to church picnic to social club in their intense six-week compressed version of a campaign. The throne speech indicated that Stephen Harper was going to be more forceful about Canadian-ness, but this does not seem to be a partisan or personal agenda, as the message of the media, of intellectuals, of urbanists and small-community promoters alike has a striking commonality. One consistently hears not just that this growing country is not only not going to be like America in its treatment of minorities, but it’s also not going to make the choice that Europe is increasingly criticizing itself for having made.

There aren’t going to be any Canadian cities with a version of the Algerians-only suburban slums of Paris. Nor any Canadian version of the Turks-only quarters of German cities. Angry, bitter Pakistanis in Britain readying train-bombs, yes, but not in Canada. Every night, there is a new melting pot on display on the national TV news out of Toronto that says our forward face is going to encompass every possible variation of melanin content, gender, surname, and age cohort, but there are rules, decorum rules, limits to the range of speech allowed, rules that would make Americans cringe. The first rule seems to be this: Rage and violence are just not on—except when it happened 200 years ago, when it saved us from losing our identity.

And through the more than 75 events that are already on the schedule for 2012, 2013 and 2014 on the War of 1812 bicentenniary, the central message that will be repeated is that Canada is not only a distinctive society as a result of having beaten back the Americans’ attempt at conquest, but that it is the premier society—more sane than the place that re-installs the Wisconsin governor who makes war on labor, more just because everybody has healthcare, better for business because the country spends half what Americans spend on healthcare leaving more money for the rest of a growing economy, which makes Canada better at economic growth, better at uplift, better at inclusion, better as a magnet for the trained no matter where the diplomas were earned.

Should the much-discussed surge in immigration turn Canada from a country of 38 million today into a country of 100 million by 2030, the bicentennial observances of General Brock’s war, of Laura Secord’s war, of the repulse of the Americans, will have to be re-enacted more often than the pageant at Palmyra. Group identity has to be reinforced with repetition. Canadians haven’t had to do so very much of that until recently, not until the Quebec sovereignty near-misses of 20 years ago.

But that effort is underway again. When I heard old people refer to Canada as “Grandmother’s Land” in a language spoken in both Montana and Saskatchewan, I thought it was a quaint throwback, a verbal reminiscence of Queen Victoria in her big skirts. That was old Canada, which my friends’ people had known from 200 years of trading with the Hudson’s Bay men for those old-time white blankets, and for tobacco, and for shot. But the queen is being put to use again. The royal family is touring Canada again, for all the immigrants and all the natives alike to see. Everybody else in the world is paying attention, too, except for those among us who are surprised that the Canadians are closing their office here. They don’t have to come here anymore. The world is going to them.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His new book is Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, available at bookstores or at

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