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November 13, 2012

Harper's War of 1812

Reuel S. Amdur

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Harper has been replaying the War of 1812 all year, to commemorate its bicentennial. More important, to deflect criticism for cutting heritage and cultural funding for various programs such as Library and Archives Canada, he is setting himself up as a heritage hero with his splashy commemoration. The cost of the celebration? $28 million, but that is not quite enough.

He is now asking for another $200,000 for a commemorative “vignette”, whatever that might be.

According to Harper, “The War helped establish our path toward being an independent and free country, united under the Crown with a respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity” (the residential schools?) and “was instrumental in creating Canada’s armed forces.”  Of course, much of this is nonsense. 

None of those in British North America saw themselves as Canadians in any sense.  They were British, Americans who had moved north, vanquished French settlers who had been abandoned by the mother country, and Aboriginals. 

Harper’s remarks convey the usual Tory appeals to the Crown and militarism.  Nevertheless, grant him this: if the Americans had won, Canada would now be part of the United States.

In that limited sense, we can say that the British won the war which the Americans had initiated.  However, in any larger sense, it was a saw-off.  Neither side was able to sustain any territorial gains, and so it concluded much as it started, albeit with thousands dead on both sides. 

Taking only the British side, 2,000 were killed in action, with another 8,000 dying of disease or accident.  For the Indians, it is estimated that 1,500 were killed in battle, with 8,500 dead from accident or disease.  An additional number died of starvation. 

Why did the war end? 

The British were too preoccupied with Napoleon and matters continental to spend much manpower and attention on some distant distraction in North America.  The Americans, for their part, had had enough.  They had assumed that they would have an easy walk-through.  So the Americans and the British made peace, but someone was left out—the Aboriginals.  They were the losers.

Most of the North American tribes had sided with the British, in large measure because of the efforts of Tecumseh, who travelled across the land in an attempt to create a confederation of Indian tribes.  His goal was to create a unified Indian nation on territory that would halt the western expansion of the Americans, an expansion at the expense of the First Nations.  The Indian warriors were crucial to victory in battle after battle, and they helped the British hold the line even in cases of defeat.

It is most unlikely that the thin population of the British and French settlers, the militias, and the small British military contingent could have held out against the Americans, and in fact it was only through inept strategy that the American invasion was halted.  So chalk the ability of the British to bring the fight to a deadlock to Tecumseh and the Indians.  But Tecumseh’s dream of an Indian confederation that would halt the westward expansion of the white man died, just as he died in battle.

The death warrant for Tecumseh’s dream was signed in 1814, the Treaty of Ghent.  That treaty made peace between the British and Americans, but the First Nations were excluded.  Their lands continued to be prey to westward expansion, now at an accelerated rate.  The Indians lost the war, big time.

Today, Harper is counting on winning a doctored re-run of the War of 1812.  Would you buy a used war from this guy?

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