A Canadian Perspective on the War of 1812
by Victor Suthren
When the American declaration of war fell upon the disparate colonies of British North America, it produced reactions as different as the character of each colony. But the people of the Canadian colonies were united in the belief that this was an unwanted war, governed more by the distant preoccupations of London or Washington than the needs and wishes of the King’s subjects in North America.
The Perspective in Lower and Upper Canada
In Lower Canada, what is now the Province of Quebec, the French-speaking majority had little love for the British colonial overlords, who had governed them since the conquest of New France, fifty years earlier. As with the American War of Independence, they viewed this new war as another fratricidal struggle between Anglo-Saxons, in which the people of Quebec had little interest. The British government, however, had guaranteed their freedom of language and religion, and it was not clear that the Americans would do the same if they were to control Canada. Picking the lesser of two evils, French Canadians served willingly in regular British regiments and militia formations, and fought well in the successful repulse of American forces.
In Upper Canada, which would later form the basis of the Province of Ontario, the British administration was far less sure the population would fight in defense of the colony. There was a hardy, well-settled core of American Loyalists who had trekked north to Canada after the Revolution. They nurtured a bitter enmity toward their former countrymen who had dispossessed them of all they had and driven them out. But they were lost in the ranks of other American settlers who had come north seeking land after the Revolution, and who now outnumbered the Loyalists. The small and overworked British administration, and its inadequate garrison of regular troops, governed an essentially American colony of uncertain loyalty.
It was this reality, as well as the weakness of the British defenses -- the militia of Kentucky alone could outmatch the total armed force available for the defense of “the Canadas”-- that led Thomas Jefferson to suggest that the conquest of Canada would be a “mere matter of marching.” The American settlers in Canada wanted to protect their homes and farms, more particularly so after the first American troops incursions demonstrated that an American origin would be no protection against burning and pillaging. But these transplanted Americans would not commit to a fight unless the British administration demonstrated it would defend the Canadas. When the British did show they meant to fight, the largely American “Canadian” militia turned out in defense of their new communities against the armies of their former countrymen.
The sufferings of Canadian civilians at the hands of American troops, and the legacy of burnt and looted communities along the frontier gave the people of Upper Canada a strong sense, not so much of who they were, but certainly who they were not. And it had been American bayonets and torches that had brought that realization. Nonetheless, when the passions of the war faded, Upper Canadians soon returned to a more natural relationship with the American communities across the border, and re-knit ties of kinship, trade and friendship that the war had, in most eyes, needlessly sundered.
The Canadian Maritime Perspective
In the colonies of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, opposition to the war was immediate. In this, they shared the feelings of the New Englanders, to whom they were intimately tied by marriage, trade, friendship and natural inclination. During the war, citizens on both sides sought to minimize the war’s impact.
For Nova Scotians, there was an economic benefit, the principal British naval and military base at Halifax bustled with activity during the war, injecting energy into the colonial economy. Privateer vessels from all three colonies preyed successfully on American shipping during the war, establishing some lasting fortunes, including that of Samuel Cunard. Nonetheless, the war’s end brought a sigh of relief, and a quick return to friendly relations and business as usual between New England and the maritime provinces.
First Nations of Canada
For the North American Indian First Nation warriors, their courageous and desperate struggle against the Americans ultimately failed. The Shawnee war chief Tecumseh died in battle near Moraviatown, and the disparate tribes that had fought with the British lost not only their leader, but also their political position in the resolution of the war. The refusal of the British government to press redress of First Nations grievances with the Americans, who were in no mood to discuss it, ended all hopes of First Nation security. Having been instrumental in the successful defense of Canada, the warriors and their families lost their dream of an Indian homeland, and continued their decline into marginalization and poverty. Theirs is the most tragic story of all in the War of 1812.
The end of the war brought a return to normalcy in terms of trade, and the renewing of ties of friendship and family. The end also brought out, in often poignant terms, the tragedy that such a conflict could have arisen between peoples so closely bound. But some things were different. Great Britain, preoccupied with its European and world concerns after the defeat of Napoleon, had learned a new respect for the United States. For its part, there would be no more talk of a “mere matter of marching” to conquer Canada in Washington’s corridors; the tough and dogged defense that had blunted American invasion efforts ensured that. And for the British North American colonies, the blurred lines that had marked the border with the United States had now become clear. The war ensured that there would be a different society to the north, following its own lights, and having fought for its existence -- as had its neighbour thirty years earlier. Out of that would grow mutual respect and an enduring friendship.
Victor Suthren is a Canadian naval expert and the author of the 1999 history, The War of 1812.
REVIEWS $05 In his final chapter Bothwelldealswith the revolutionin CanadianAmerican relations whichwascapped bythefreetradetreaty. The author's choice forheroofthismost recent episode issignificantly Donald Macdonald, a Liberalwhosawthe fight,as opposed to the Trudeauloyalists whose dogmas clouded theirvision andrendered them blindtothesupposed new realities of theworldeconomy. The book is constructed to reach this d•nouement. We Canadians and Americans haveat last,Bothwell believes, cometo recognize our similarities and set aside our differences, at least on economic matters. There is no room inhistreatmentfor thosewhoharbouranydoubts aboutour futurewith the United States. Thisispresentist history witha vengeance, delivered witha certitudethis reviewercannot share. Yet Bothwell'svigorousstatementof his views, combined with a lively styleand soundresearch, provides us with an excellent workthatwemayquarrelwithbutcannot ignore. STEPHEN J.SCHEINBERG Coru•oTdia Urdvt7'si• Borderlands: Essays in Canadian-American Re/at/OhS. ROBERT LEGKER. Toronto: EcwPress 1991.Pp.xviii, 328,maps.$45.00 In the fourteenessays collected here, economists, historicalgeographers, literarycritics,politicalsdenfists, and sociologists considerseveralof the respects in whichthe Canadian-American frontierprovides a focusfor the interaction of thetwocountries thatshareit. Definingthespace in whichthis interaction takes placein terms oftheconstruct 'borderlands' - a notionthat extends J.B. Brebner's sense of a 'regionof continuous Canadian-American interplay' soasto yieldtheideaof an extra-national domain incorporating features of eachcountryin waysthat makeit at oncedifferentfrom and similar toboth- contributors mostly share volume presenter VictorKonrad's viewthat 'borderlands are regionsthat havea temperingeffecton the centralizing tendencies of eachsociety, andthese regions reveal the waysin whichthe nation-states blend into eachother' (viii). Sometimes borderlands 'unity' is seenmanifesting itselfin waysthat haven't received theattentiontowhichtheirimportance entitles them.Peter HaynesMeservethus focuses on the kind of integrationcreatedby subnational management of transnational relations asstates and provinces move toorderandsystematize theirencounters witheach other. Theoffshore also gets some much-needed attention asEdward Collins Jr points totheway in which extension of territorial waters in the Gulf of Maine area first produced conflictand then what he seesas a strengthening tendencyto devise strategies forjointmanagement andcontrol ofa shared resource. It is,however, geography, andin something liketheusual sense, which most otiengets seen asstanding attherootofwhatever 'borderlands' reality :•06 THE CANADIAN HISTOKICAL lIEVIEW exists. Sometimes theshape oftheland isheld todefine aspace theentering of whichby communications systems provides the integrating dynamic-a• Thomas F. McIlwraith, focusingmainly on the Great Lakes basin,and Donald G. Janelie, concernedwith the Quebec-Maine-NewBrunswick corridor- argue.Sometimes (see JohnC. Everitton the Canadian grain trade) one country's climate andsoil areviewed asinviting economic activity, theeffective pursuit ofwhich unites it withtheother byvirtue ofitsheavy dependence onthatother's technology andentrepreneurship. Occasionally whatthelandmakes possible isseenascreating aneconomy andsociety wherethedesireofthehumancomponents for controloperates in thesame way on bothsides of theborderand soleadsto an essentially pan-North Americanpolitics- the point of Mildred A. Schwartz's articleon western farmers' movements. And sometimes - as in Prem P. Ghandi's discussion0[ Canadian investment in NewYorkandVermont - geographical contiguity i• takenasa keyfactorgenerating patterns of cross-border activityunderstood in termsoftheircapacity topersist andendure. The productsof refinedsensibility and imagination are not ignored. Laurie Ricoupresents 'Northwest writing'as something to be approached through resistance to 'neatbinaries'asoneseeks'whatliesin the middle... refusingtofix oneor theother'(:502), whileFrances W. Kayefinds'theeffect of national boundaries onPrairie-Plains literature... alteredby gender, race, time, genre,andindividual interest'(2:59). For themostpart, however - and here,it mustbe said,thereis a certainfalteringof the collection's general thrust as the argumentof varioussegments beginsto contestthat of the others- culturalactivity isnotperceived asattenuating thesignificance ofthe border.RicouandKayethemselves revealmuchthatdistinguishes theproductsof literaryworkin thetwocountries from eachother;Russell Browifs essay viewsliterature- evenAmericanliterature- asexpressive of a profoundsense of Canadian-American difference; and ShearillGraceelegantly reprises theideathatpainting, photography, film,television, music, andwritinginthetwocountries embody theclassic metanarratives ofWestandNorth. That the collection hassomedifficulty sustaining its neo-continentali•t themeisin factindicated notsimplyin thesepapers but alsoin threeofks 'hard'essays. Laurence S.Seidenberg's comment on theimplications whk'h recentdevelopments in intellectual property law,technology, andCanadianAmerican traderelations havehadfortheCanadian government's concern to maintainthe space national policyhastraditionally reserved for Canadian cultural activity certainly underscores theexistence ofa continuing sense of Canadian difference andof whatneeds tobe doneto ensureitsexpression. SusanE. Squires's lookat the wayNewfoundland's reorientation toward• Canada after1949 effectively sundered itslong-standing involvement with the Boston states, particularly in theareat)fe•nigration, suggests thatimperatives REVIEWS 307 enforcing national integration continue to haveweight. AndMichael Pretes, basing hisargument squarely on theproposition that'national institutions and systems ...have taken thegreatest holdontheminds ofborder residents' (309), asserts thatalthough 'Alaska andtheYukon areinmany ways asingle region ... different federal systems imposed fromtheoutside, andthe...