But we defended our land … We stood side by side … and won the fight for Canada
By Christopher J. Duncanson-Hales
A spit take with popcorn in a multiplex theatre is not a pretty sight. Fortunately, the movie my son chose to view was not as popular as some of the other blockbusters being screened on that day. What forced the popcorn from my mouth was the sudden exhalation of air prompted by the blatantly revisionist spectacle of the Canadian Government’s advertisement commemorating the start of the War of 1812 – The Fight for Canada (Anon. 2012).
In approximately 1 minute and 3 seconds, this piece presents the War of 1812 as the pivotal moment that forged Canada from a collection of immigrant settlers represented by Major General Issac Brock, francophone ‘exiles’ represented by General Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry and First Nations confederates represented by The Shawnee War Chief, Tecumseh. As the camera pans from actor to actor, and the music swells to a patriotic crescendo, the narrator intones “But we defended our land … We stood side by side … and won the fight for Canada” (Anon. 2012).
The fact that Canada did not exist until the signing of Confederation in 1867, or the fact that Tecumseh and his First Nation confederacy was fighting to prevent America’s Northwest expansion is of little consequence, what is important to the producers of this piece (read the Government of Canada) is that the War of 1812 begins Canada’s march to independence, to decolonization, to nationhood. This production is an attempt to stir jingoistic pride with thinly veiled propaganda that suits the government of the day’s propensity for manipulating facts to fit ideology. What I find most offensive is the portrayal the War of 1812 in the language of defence, solidarity and liberation ignoring the history of conquest and colonialism which is the real legacy of how the fight for Canada was won.
For instance, the image of d’Irumberry de Salaberry was invoked by Canadian defence minister Peter McKay in a Bastille Day speech to the French diplomatic corps in Ottawa. “Suffice it to say in the 200th commemoration of the War of 1812,” MacKay asserts, “had the French not been here fighting side by side, we might be standing here next to each other in a new light.” (Bolen) MacKay denied the gaffe. MacKay’s historical hair splitting has been widely criticised. In a quotation that has appeared in newsprint and blogs around the world, Michael Petrou, Maclean Magazine’s foreign affairs writer observes that “It will take some creative spinning to argue MacKay had a clue what he was talking about. French Canadians fought hard and well against the American invasion of Canada, notably at the Battle of the Chateauguay, a decisive Canadian and British victory. But these men were generations removed from France and showed it little loyalty. The biggest effect France had on their lives was that when Napoleon took on Britain, America felt emboldened to go to war against them” (Petrou 2012).
This legacy and revisionist history is most evident in the portrayal of the First Nation leader, Tecumseh. In the video, Tecumseh is presented as standing with Brock and d’Irumberry de Salaberry. Each is portrayed as equals, shoulder to shoulder in the fight for colonialism, I mean Canada. The Canadian government’s sanitization of Tecumseh as a noble savage “clothed in traditional Aboriginal deerskin garments,” is not without historical precedent (Government of Canada). R. David Edmunds notes in his article, “Tecumseh, The Shawnee Prophet, and American History: A Reassessment” that “White Americans have championed Tecumseh because he, more than any other Indian, exemplifies the American or European concept of the “noble savage”: brave, honest, a true “prince of the forest”- natural man at his best. Since his death, his American and British contemporaries and later historians have continued to embellish his memory with qualities and exploits that have added to his image.” (Edmunds 1983)
Missing from the Canadian government’s embellishment of Canadian military glory is the troubled history of Canadian settler/First Nations relations. Tecumseh did not fight to defend Canada. Tecumseh fought to stop American western expansion, a fight the Metis would continue against Canadian expansion under the leadership of Louis Riel who was hung by the now independent Canadian state in 1885.(Anon.) Like Riel’s hanging, the legacy of the War of 1812 for Canada’s First Nation peoples is betrayal and continued broken promises culminating in the policy of forced assimilation and cultural genocide. In the years following the War of 1812 the British had to explain this betrayal. Colin G. Calloway recounts the reaction of Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall to the Treaty of Ghent, which ended hostilities in 1815. Calloway writes,
British agents and officers in the Great Lakes region were as shocked as the Indians to hear the terms of the peace settlement in1815.They had functioned as the King’s representatives, had exhorted the Indians to fight for the Crown, and had made promises in good faith that King George would never forget his faithful Indian allies. Now had to explain to the Indians why they had been abandoned to the tender mercies of their American enemies. McDouall could not understand why Britain, “the mistress of the world,” should make repeated concessions to the United States and sever her links with the western Indians:
I fear I have harp’d upon this subject until all are tired of it. I cannot help it. Through me, the western Indians were taught to cherish brighter hopes, to look forward to happier days, to repose with confidence in the sacred pledge of British honor….
Indians who had trusted him had been led to ruin and annihilation and, lamented McDouall, “-after what I have told them what a superlative and unequalled-they must think me-”(Calloway 1986).
As this jingoistic march of ‘commemoration’ continues I would like to leave the last words to Sauk war chief, Black Hawk, a long-time supporter of the British who fought for the Crown in the war, and confronted the British colonial governor at the Council with the Western Nations in 1817. His lamentation are echoed today in places like Attawapiskat, and by leaders, like Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. Those who have ears, let them listen.
You have no idea of our miserable situation, a Black Cloud is over running our Country taking our lands from us and threatening us with destruction-We have not Slept either in peace or tranquility since we laid down the Hatchet and smoked the pipe with the Big Knives as you desired us.
You were not afraid to bring us our Great Father’s bounty when our Hatchet was still red with blood. Why can you not do it now when our Women and Children are poor and we are threatened with the loss of our Lands by the bad Spirits.(Calloway 1986).
Christopher J. Duncanson-Hales is a recent PhD graduate in theological and historical studies from Saint Paul University at the University of Ottawa living in Sudbury, Ontario. Chris’ research explores the intersection of social systems theory and theological hermeneutics in the context of globalization as experienced and interpreted through the theological reasoning of those who despite their experience of suffering continue to proclaim hope.
Anon. 2012. The Fight for Canada. http://1812.gc.ca/eng/1340029830796/1340032636942.
———. “Louis Riel.” http://library.usask.ca/northwest/background/riel.htm.
Bolen, Michael. “Politics –The Pulse”. The Huffington Post, Canada. Peter MacKay Makes War Of 1812 Gaffe In Bastille Day Speech. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/07/18/peter-mackay-war-of-1812_n_1683099.html.
Calloway, Colin G. 1986. “The End of an Era: British-Indian Relations in the Great Lakes Region after the War of 1812.” Michigan Historical Review 12 (2) (October 1): 1–20.
Edmunds, R. David. 1983. “Tecumseh, the Shawnee Prophet, and American History: A Reassessment.” The Western Historical Quarterly 14 (3) (July 1): 261–276.
Government of Canada. “The War of 1812.” Tecumseh, Shawnee War Chief.
Petrou, Michael. “The World Desk.” Celebrating Canada’s War of 1812 Victory: All Hail Sir Isaac Brock, Tecumseh, and Napoleon. http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/07/16/celebrating-canadas-war-of-1812-victory-all-hail-sir-isaac-brock-tecumseh-and-napoleon/.