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Don't disparage War of 1812

And most of the tawdriness was on the American side.

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Dateline: Tuesday, June 05, 2012

From: Rodney Dickinson

Re: Dennis Gruending's article Harperites glorify the War of 1812 to promote militarism to a peaceful nation.

There may be some truth in Dennis Gruending's and others' claims that the Harper Government may wish to use the War of 1812 to prepare the way for some new militaristic ventures. Canada's modern military history had resolved itself into United Nations peacekeeping until a little more than ten years ago, and would that that was still our military role. But a combination of United States pressure, to which our Governments often succumb (and I admit I am at a loss always to discover the way to plausibly resist those pressures), and a military naivete that the Conservative, gun-loving mind often exhibits, shifted that peace-keeping tradition to one of active involvement in far-away conflicts.

What I object to is the dismissive statement he makes about the War of 1812: "That part of the war fought on what is now Canadian soil was, in reality, a series of tawdry and incompetently planned skirmishes in which neither side really won."

The United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Its war aims were to force Britain to end its naval blockade against trade with a European continent dominated by Napolean and to stop pressing sailors from American merchant shipping into His Majesty's navy. But America's immediate military aim of the war was the conquest of the British Colonies that today constitute eastern Canada.

Gruending's statement has some truth to it: some of the battles were mere skirmishes; some certainly were ill-planned, by one side or both; generalship did prove incompetent on occasion. Most of the actions were fought in Upper Canada (southern Ontario) or just across the border in the United States. As wars go, casualties were relatively light, although the climactic Battle of Lundy's Lane, fought in July of 1814, cost each side 860 casualties. That's a sizable battle for a colony that possessed a total population of 70,000 people at the time. As for tawdriness, I feel comfortable in asserting it was very largely on the American side.

Many of the 70,000 residents were recent American immigrants, and had no particular love for the King, except that he gave them free homestead land, not available in the United States. As the war went on, because of well-planned strategic moves and battles that won security and some new territory for the British, that population rallied, a little more enthusiastically at least, to defend the colony against the Americans.

The War is well worth study and should not be dismissed by those who, I suspect lack much sense of history, and have a tendency to view every action of the current government as being nefarious and conspiratorial.

I believe The War of 1812 was important to Canada for these reasons:

  • The successful defense of Canadian Territory made possible the Canada of today. Had Upper Canada been lost, Quebec — which has its language, but more than that, a sense of national gumption — may have survived to evolve into a country today. Likely, the Atlantic Provinces may have ultimately been lost to Britain, and therefore to Canada. The Americans would have eventually overrun western Canada.

  • The conservatism, even governmental backwardness, of early 19th Century Britain, which was supported by the governing and mercantile classes in the Upper and Lower Canadas, ironically led to a slower, more measured development of democratic institutions than what took place in the United States. I believe that Canada, notwithstanding the ravages of the Harper Government, is today a more mature democracy and nation state than the United States. The capitalist system here is mitigated, if slightly, by a belief that government can act for the benefit of its people, despite the demands of market forces. Hence medicare. The Canadian victory in the War of 1812 made that possible.

I agree with much of what Gruending and others say about the Conservative Government's militaristic bent. But do not disparage the importance of the War of 1812 to Canada.



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