Whoa Canada: 200 years of Canadian-ness
Canada today is seen as a harmonious nation of hockey, mounties and maple leaves, in peaceful contrast to its often fractious and noisy neighbour to the south. But Canadian-ness itself was born amid the blood, gunpowder and glory of the War of 1812, writes Grant Stoddard.
Canadians see their Canadian-ness as the sum total of their shared values, interests and beliefs.
By contrast, in other places national identity is more typically linked to battles, popular uprisings and improbable triumphs in the face of adversity: the Boston Tea Party, the storming of the Bastille, the October Revolution.
In the years after the American Revolution, Britain set about creating a mirror-state to the north of the 13 rebellious former colonies.
Hoping in part to entice the US back into the empire, Britain aimed to demonstrate that life in North America could be happier and more stable under her administration.
There were challenges: the territory in what is now Canada was rugged, under-developed and thinly populated.
Furthermore, the main groups of people living there did not like each other very much.
First Nations tribes resented the unrelenting European expansion into the heart of the continent. Disaffected French Catholics had settled along the St Lawrence River in the early 1600s and remained after Britain finally wrested control of Canada from France in 1763. British inhabitants of Nova Scotia, known as the “14th Colony“, had not joined their sister colonies in revolt.
And tens of thousands relocated north after the American War of Independence: refugee crown loyalists and former black slaves rewarded with their freedom for fighting alongside the British.
The new arrivals were so numerous that Britain carved a new colony – New Brunswick – out of Nova Scotia to accommodate them. Yet even after the influx, the US still had about 20 times the population of what was now called British North America.
At the dawn of the 19th Century, what is now Canada was no melting pot or even patchwork quilt but rather a hodgepodge of disparate groups who held wildly varying opinions on British rule and American republicanism and a deep distrust of one another.
By 1812, with the British embroiled in war with France, US hawks moved to take advantage of their northern neighbour’s disunity, finish the job of the revolution and kick the British off the North American continent once and for all.
Former President Thomas Jefferson considered that annexing the vast territory would be “a mere matter of marching” and could be completed within a few months.
Canadians, regardless of their allegiances, were uninterested in receiving liberty and prosperity at the point of an American sword. So they took up arms.
In battles on both sides of the border, vastly outnumbered Canadian militiamen, British regular troops and First Nations warriors led by Shawnee warrior Tecumseh overcame the Americans.
A force led by British Maj Gen Isaac Brock and Tecumseh captured Detroit from Gen Hull, taking almost 2,500 American regulars and militiamen captive with only 300 hundred British regulars, 400 Canadian militiamen and 600 natives.
At the Battle of the Chateauguay near Montreal, French Canadians repelled a US attack. Under the leadership of Charles de Salaberry, 50 regulars, 400 volunteers, 900 militiamen and 180 Mohawks drove off 4,000-strong US force.
Their victory inspired yet another improbable defence of Canada just over two weeks later at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, in which 900 British regulars and Canadian militiamen repulsed 8,000 US troops.
The US withdrew to well within the boundaries of the 13 colonies. Inexperienced British diplomats gave away her territorial gains at the negotiating table, while bullish and skilled US negotiators rejected the British-backed idea of an independent “buffer state” for the indigenous tribes between the US and British North America.
This betrayal of the natives hastened the demise of native autonomy in North America, as the US turned its attention from annexing lands in the north to pushing west toward the Pacific Ocean.
The British and Americans drew and the natives lost, leaving the fledgling Canadians with the best claim to victory.
»War of 1812: Violence, glory and a new Canadian-ness
- Pageantry, reflection during War of 1812’s bicentennial (ctv.ca)
- The War of 1812: When the U.S. Invaded Canada – and Failed (world.time.com)
- First Nations role in the War of 1812 ‘critical’ (cbc.ca)
- Halifax celebrates its contribution to the War of 1812 (cbc.ca)
- Can you recall the War of 1812? (kansascity.com)
- War of 1812 interpreted and reinterpreted (cbc.ca)
- Why the War of 1812 still matters (bbc.co.uk)
- 200 Years Ago Today, America’s First War Begins (outsidethebeltway.com)
- Outcome of 200-year-old war determined Alberta’s fate (calgaryherald.com)
- War of 1812: Violence, glory and Canadian-ness (bbc.co.uk)