Washington Post columnist takes aim at Tories’ War of 1812 campaign

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
The battle over who won the War of 1812 rages on

The Conservative government is spending $30 million to tell Canadians how important the War of 1812 was to the formation of the country.

That's probably more than it cost to prosecute the war itself, if you account for inflation. But there's little evidence the TV spots, banners, commemorative coins and ceremonies have done much to spark interest in what the Tories consider a pivotal chapter in the Canadian narrative. Had the American invasion not been repulsed, there'd be no Canada, they say.

Yet a poll done last winter, after the government's year-long awareness blitz peaked  suggested only residents of Ontario, where most of the fighting took place, felt more patriotic because of the government's efforts, the Globe and Mail reported.

[ Related: How Stephen Harper is rewriting history ]

However, the campaign may have had one surprising consequence: informing American tourists that the war was more than just the Battle of New Orleans and Dolly Madison rescuing Washington's portrait (a myth, as it turns out) before the British burned the White House.

Washington Post columnist John Kelly got his consciousness raised during a holiday that took him to both Canada and Britain. Driving through Ottawa, he noticed "something weird," Kelly wrote in the Post on Tuesday. There were banners depicting Canadian heroes of the war such as Sir Isaac Brock, Charles de Salaberry and Laura Secord. Kelly, who included a link to the official Canadian War of 1812 site in his column, saw more banners on lamp posts in Prescott, Ont.

"Why would our North American brothers [well, cousins] want to remember a war that they lost?" he wondered.

“The little joke among 1812 enthusiasts is that the War of 1812 is perfect,” Bill Pencek, executive director of Maryland’s War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, told Kelly.

[ Related: Anniversary marks battle that kept Canada-U.S. borders intact, bizarre though they are ]

“The Canadians know they won. The Americans think they won. The British don’t even know there was a war.”

As with Canada, U.S. interest in commemorating the conflict is pretty localized. Towns in Maryland, where British and American forces battled, are marking the war's bicentennial with banners. But not neighbouring Washington, D.C.

"Of course, what would the District commemorate?" Kelly asks. "Canada’s official War of 1812 Web site has a section headlined: 'Did you know: Canada would not exist had the American invasion of 1812-1815 been successful.'

"The District, on the other hand, was burned. That’s not exactly something you want to trumpet."

[ Related: War of 1812 celebration not the best way to spend $30 million ]

British troops occupied and torched Washington's government buildings in 1814, ostensibly in retaliation for the burning of York (modern Toronto) by an invading American force earlier that year. Washington Post reporter Steve Vogel challenged that pretext in an article last June.

Kelly noted plans are also underway in Maryland to commemorate the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," penned by Francis Scott Key as he watched British artillery bombarding Baltimore's Fort McHenry.

"About the only definitive thing you can say about the War of 1812 is that it gave us a great national anthem," Kelly observed.

"So, I think the Canadians are winning the War of 1812 Bicentennial so far. Maryland is coming in second. Washington? Well, maybe it’s concentrating on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War."