Although it produced "The Star-Spangled Banner," the War of 1812 does not get much attention in the United States. In Canada, however, the federal government is devoting surprising attention to the bicentennial of the conflict, which it describes bluntly in a new television commercial as an act of U.S. aggression against Canada.
DUNVEGAN, Ontario — Although it produced “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the War of 1812 does not get much attention in the United States. In Canada, however, the federal government is devoting surprising attention to the bicentennial of the conflict, which it describes bluntly in a new television commercial as an act of U.S. aggression against Canada.
Much about the war is fiercely debated by historians but one thing is clear: Canada was not yet a country at the time of the war, which pitted the U.S. against the British.
As sweeping government budget cuts affect historic sites and national parks, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has set aside about $28 million for events, advertising and exhibitions to commemorate the war. The government’s enthusiasm has puzzled and angered many people here, where flag-waving forms of patriotism are more subdued than they are south of the border.
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“Two hundred years ago, the United States invaded our territory,” a narrator says over dark images and ominous music in the government’s ad. “But we defended our land; we stood side by side and won the fight for Canada.”
As the founding president of the Historica-Dominion Institute, a charity that promotes Canadian history, Andrew Cohen, who teaches journalism and international relations at Carleton University in Ottawa, has been a particularly outspoken critic of the government in this case.
“The War of 1812 is part of our history, and that’s fine,” said Cohen, who first publicly took issue with the government’s effort in a column for The Ottawa Citizen. But, he added: “It’s turned into a form of propaganda, and it seems to have married the government’s interest in the military with its interest, some would say obsession, with the War of 1812. It’s clearly, to me, part of a campaign to politicize history.”
During its first six years, Harper’s Conservative government expanded military spending and shifted the focus of Canadian troops away from U.N. peacekeeping missions and toward an expanded combat role in Afghanistan. Far more than other recent prime ministers, Harper attends military events and praises the armed forces in his speeches.
David J. Bercuson, a military historian at the University of Calgary in Alberta, does not share Cohen’s criticism of the government, but he said he found its keen interest in the War of 1812 somewhat mysterious.
“I’m scratching my head for the last year and asking myself: ‘Why is the government placing so much emphasis on this war?’ ‘ ” he said.
The answer, according to James Moore, who as minister of Canadian heritage is in charge of the campaign, is that the government simply wants the long-ago war, which few Canadians know well, to be remembered.
“Canada was invaded, the invasion was repelled and we endured, but we endured in partnership with the United States,” Moore said. “It’s a very compelling story.”
But because Canada did not become a nation until 1867, the War of 1812 was actually a battle between the young United States and Britain. Why the comparatively powerless United States took on the imperial power still remains a matter of considerable discussion. But the conflict did follow British interference with U.S. trade and U.S. concerns about Britain’s intentions in North America.
At the time, many residents of the colonies that later became Canada were Americans who had immigrated for free land rather than to support Britain. Many historians, including Bercuson, agree that British regular troops deserve most of the credit for repelling the U.S. invaders.
Even the eventual victor remains a subject of some dispute. In his book “The Civil War of 1812,” Alan Taylor, a professor of U.S. and Canadian history at the University of California, concludes that it was “a military stalemate” that created sharper distinctions between the United States and the neighbor to its north.
On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Glengarry Pioneer Museum in Dunvegan, there was little indication that the government’s commercials had provoked War of 1812 mania. Perhaps it was bad weather in nearby Ottawa, but the organizers of an annual War of 1812 battle re-enactment said attendance was less than last year.
After the mock battle, which involved about two dozen amateur re-enactors and an impressive amount of noise and smoke from three cannons, Jennifer Black, the village’s curator and administrator, said that she welcomed the government’s interest in what had been a lonely cause, even if she found it “kind of weird.”
“It’s a good thing that the bicentennial has brought attention to it,” she said.
Robert Irvine, a re-enactor and cannon owner who said he had been “fighting the War of 1812 since 1984,” was full of unqualified praise for the government. Irvine, a self-described “cannon nut,” is co-chairman of a group that will receive $195,000 in grants to hold two events next year commemorating a key battle along the shores of the St. Lawrence River.
But rather than reliving old battles and claiming victory in an almost-forgotten war, Cohen, the professor in Ottawa, said the government should spend more time and money commemorating the two centuries of largely peaceful relations that have followed. (Moore, the minister, said it did just that during speeches at the opening of an exhibition in Ottawa that was attended by the U.S. ambassador to Canada.)
Camped out near the small Ontario battlefield, a group of three re-enactors from Ogdensburg, N.Y., one of the war’s battle sites, said the Canadian government’s interest was a stark contrast to that back home.
“It’s wonderful; it’s not like New York state, who will not spend a penny,” said Marsha Hough, who, along with two other women, was repairing period costumes.
Hough’s complaint was not entirely accurate, even if U.S. efforts are noticeably more modest.
A bill to set up a U.S. commission to mark the bicentennial of the war as well as “The Star-Spangled Banner” died in Congress, although the Navy, Coast Guard and Marines are holding commemorations. Several states that have established War of 1812 commissions rely mainly on sponsorships, donations and, in Maryland’s case, the sale of commemorative coins.
New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, vetoed a bill to establish a War of 1812 commission, but he allocated $450,000 for commemorations. By contrast, the government of Canada is spending $6.5 million on television commercials alone.