Discovering Canadian History One Station at a Time
Some wars end in clear victory for one side and an equally clear defeat for the other. Among these are the Napoleonic Wars and on the clear defeats of Napoleon at Borodino in 1812 and Waterloo in 1815 hang the monster novels of Tolstoy (War and Peace) and Thackeray (Vanity Fair) as well as the cannon fire of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Other wars end less triumphantly. Few speak of the victors of World War One, only exhaustion and the absence of defeat. These produce slimmer and more introspective works like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
But between triumphalism and bewildered exhaustion, there are wars in which all parties claim victory. This is the case with the War of 1812 which was ostensibly over the press-ganging of US citizens into British service against Napoleon and which became an assault on the British presence in north America.
In this bicentennial year there has been much talk of its significance. Of this I have to claim ignorance; from a European perspective the War of 1812 gets lost in the drama of the Napoleonic Wars. For the US though, it produced the “Star Spangled Banner”, composed by Francis Scott Key as he awaited the outcome of a battle in the Chesapeake Bay. For Canadians, it is a defining moment in which the manifest destiny of their southern neighbour was thwarted. So confident was Thomas Jefferson of the attractions of American republicanism over British colonialism that he believed victory was a “mere matter of marching”. He was wrong, but gave Canadians reason to suspect the intentions of the US. For a recent example of this suspicion and the ongoing significance of the war, take a look at the arguments of Stephen Clarkson and J. L. Granatstein presented at the Royal Ontario Museum and reported in the National Post.
Sticking with the immediate interpretations of the war though, the US counts itself victorious because it brought an end to British press-gangings while Canadians see victory in the continued existence of Canada as a country separate from the US. The British too can presumably claimed victory; after all, they successfully repelled the American incursions into their colonies.
I had hoped that I would find a metro station which remembers at least one participant of the War of 1812, but so far I have drawn a blank. John Coape Sherbrooke, the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia looked promising, but he is ultimately notable for making the best of a bad situation. While war was being waged in the Atlantic and what are now Ontario and Quebec, he kept Nova Scotia as neutral as possible and promoted trade with northern New England. (Another error on Jefferson’s part: the US does not seem to have been as republican as he supposed.) The result was that Halifax thrived while all around it was in turmoil.
Although a military man, Sherbrooke is best remembered for his conciliatory approach. Having followed a peaceful path in Nova Scotia, he was appointed Governor-General of British North America in 1816 and sought to soothe the tensions which had developed in Quebec. Sixty years after Wolfe’s victory at Quebec City, British government of a well-developed, Catholic and French-speaking colony was provoking resentment, misunderstanding and a new sense of nationhood among French speakers. With the Catholic faith an essential part of daily life in Lower Canada, British hostility to Catholicism could only cause difficulties. Sherbrooke addressed this with the ecumenical approach he had used in Nova Scotia. In the face of protocol and at the risk of offending English Protestants ,who might expect the British Governor-General to favour their interests, he appointed the leader of the Catholic clergy to the Legislative Assembly.
This paved the way for an accommodating relationship with the volatile Louis-Joseph Papineau, then speaker of the Legislative Assembly. Like many French intellectuals of the period, Papineau was convinced of the superiority of the English, rather than American, system of government. This gave Sherbrooke something to work with even if Papineau was also hostile to British rule in Quebec. Were it not for Sherbrooke’s untimely illness, he and Papineau might have succeeded in bring about a more amicable set of relations between Governors-General and the Lower Canada Assembly. As it was though, he was forced to retire in 1818.
Subsequent Governors-General were not as successful in bringing together the competing interests of British North America and by 1837, Papineau was at the centre of the Lower Canada Rebellion and, in a final irony for Jefferson, the model he chose to describe the position of French Canadiens was that of the thirteen colonies in 1775.
Links and Listings
Those in Ontario interested in events commemorating the War of 1812 may find this list from William J. Gibson useful. For people in Quebec, the Gazette has this list of events. For a US perspective, take a look at Christopher T. George’s War of 1812.
Finally, a shout out to Writing Canoe because I doubt that there’ll be much chance to cover the B.C. gold rush here and Michelle writes such excellent short fiction about it!
And, lastly, I will be reading from A History of Canada By Montreal Metro at Argo Books, 1915 Ste Catherine West at 7pm tomorrow. Still haven’t decided which station I’ll be reading, but hope you can make it.
Consulted in this post
Wynne, Graeme. ‘On the Margins of Empire’. The Illustrated History of Canada. Ed. Craig Brown. Toronto: Key Porter, 2007.