Peter RussellOn Saturday, October 13, 2012, Canadians, Americans and First Nations people came together to witness the re-enactment of the battle that took place at Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812.

My wife and I were in the crowd that braved a wet fall day to commemorate this moment in the history we share. Around us we could hear lots of talk about who won and who lost. One thing we sensed for sure is that we were all winning the battle to recover public interest in our history. An uphill battle for sure in this age of “nowism”.

We know that the battle of Queenston Heights resulted, at the end of that day, as a win for  “our side.” We lost our gallant general, Isaac Brock, early in the battle. But late in the afternoon with Roger Hale Sheaffe taking command of the British soldiers and local militia, and John Norton’s Iroquois on the flanks, terrorizing the Americans with their whooping and hollering, “we” drove the Americans down from the heights and back across the Niagara River.

After that victory, the fighting continued for two more years along the Niagara frontier. Niagara was the War of 1812’s bloodiest arena. More battles were fought and more men, women and children killed along this small stretch of North America than anywhere else.

In the ebb and flow of battle the Americans had their share of victories. But in the end they failed to achieve their objective – the taking of Canada.

If the Americans failed to win their objective, “we”, however, achieved something we  had no idea would be a consequence of stopping the American invasion of Canada.

We became Canadians.  As Winston Churchill puts it in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, the War of 1812 “was a turning-point in the history of Canada. Canadians took pride in the part they had played in defending their country, and their national sentiment was strengthened.”

Up until the War of 1812, it was only the original Canadians, les Canadiens, who thought of themselves and were referred to by others as Canadians. When my mother’s family, the Griffins and Smiths, crossed Lake Ontario in 1790 and established Smithville in the lush lands between the lake and the Niagara Escarpment, they did not think of themselves as Canadian. They were loyal subjects of the British monarch in the colony of Quebec.

Nor did the Americans who arrived in Upper Canada a little later than my mother’s people think of themselves as Canadians. They were Americans who had settled in Upper Canada not because they were loyal to King George, but because it offered good cheap farm land.

But once the Americans torched their crops, killed their cattle, pillaged and burnt their homes, as they did – big time – along that Niagara frontier, they too became Canadians.

So from the ashes of war along that bloody frontier two centuries ago, a nation was born.

It was, as we know, a nation that had a long way to go to achieve its independence and build its unity.

But it was the beginning of a nation that embraced French and English-speaking Canadians.

The Americans failed to take Canada but by their efforts in the war secured something else vital to their national interest: respect for their country as a sovereign state.

Britain in its struggle with Napoleonic France had shown in its actions at sea – taking sailors off American ships – and dictating to a neutral USA the terms on which its exports could enter Europe, that it still regarded the United States as a sort of senior colony.

After the War of 1812, again to quote Winston Churchill, “the United States were never again refused proper treatment as an independent power.”

But we must remember that the War of 1812 was a three-way struggle.

The clear losers were the western Indian nations, who had been promised an independent buffer state south of the upper Great Lakes. It was that promise that persuaded Tecumseh and the confederacy he led to support the British in the War.

For the Six Nations people along the Grand River, and the Mississaugas, Nippissings and Ojibwe people on our side of the border, that promise was also an important consideration in committing their warriors to fight on the side of the British Crown.

When the British went to Ghent in the summer of 1814 to negotiate the terms of  peace with the Americans, they put the Indian buffer state proposal on the table. But they but took it off when the Americans made it clear that it was a deal breaker.

Though the Amerindian nations lost respect for their sovereignty, they took from their experience in the War of 1812 a firmer sense of their own interests and identity.

As my wife and I heard the cheering and applause when some of their descendants performed on the recreated battle field at Queenston Heights last Saturday, we had a sense that maybe the descendants of those nations so badly betrayed two centuries ago were on the way to winning respect for their ancestors, who as free and independent peoples joined with us to make Canada possible.

Now there is a battle worth winning. 

Peter Russell is one of Canada's leading constitutional experts, advisor to Governors-General and Professor-Emeritus in Political Science at the University of Toronto

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : October 15, 2012

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