Karim Tiro: Are We Having Fun Yet? Canadians Commemorate the War of 1812
Karim Tiro is associate professor of history at Xavier University and visiting professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He is the author of The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolution through the Era of Removal (2011).
The War of 1812 is to historians what the common cold is to doctors: an embarrassment. It should be pretty simple, but its causes, nature, and ending are maddeningly elusive. Thankfully, the War of 1812 shares another feature of colds: it doesn't seem to have done too much harm. So we ignore it.
Ignoring the War of 1812 is more difficult than usual in a bicentennial year, especially for Canadian historians. Although fought by both Americans and Canadians, the war is a more important historical datum for Canadians. By repelling invading Americans, the colonists and the British army demonstrated the durability of British North America in the face of a more populous United States.
The War of 1812 was also the last war fought on Canadian soil: Canadians had no Mexican War, Civil War, or Pearl Harbor. And physical proximity makes up for chronological remoteness. Nearly half of the Canadian population lives within a three-hour drive of some War of 1812 site. Little wonder, then, that so many Canadian War of 1812 books offer prefaces that recall school field trips.
The War of 1812 will also be hard to miss because of its political charge in Canada. While the memorialization of war can cause hard feelings between ex-combatant nations, this one is arguably more problematic within the country that can more reasonably claim victory. Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a robust bicentennial celebration a part of his Conservative Party election platform, and followed through with public appropriations in the tens of millions of dollars. Canadian expenditures dwarf those on the U.S. side, where a comparatively weak economy and indifference stifled most commemoration initiatives. (Full disclosure: the present author is the recipient of a Canadian Studies grant from the Canadian government related to the war.)...