War of 1812 was a catalyst for what Canada is today

Thomas Bink

Canadians are correct in celebrating the recent bicentennial of the War of 1812 because without our mostly successful resistance during its three long and bloody years our country would not exist today.

The ultimate cause of the war was the struggle between France and Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1806, an ascendant Napoleon had begun a naval blockade of the British Isles intended to cripple its economy. Major friction arose between London and Washington when the Royal Navy in response stopped American ships bound for French-occupied Europe and forced their sailors into service on British vessels.

On June 18, 1812, President Madison declared war on Britain. The then colony of British North America — which included today's Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I, and Newfoundland — was immediately swept into the conflict. Unable to strike at Britain directly because of its invincible navy, the Americans targeted the only British territory within easy reach. It was thought widely in Washington that the soldiers of more than seven million Americans would easily crush those of approximately 460,000 Canadians.

British North America was defended by 6,000 regular soldiers, Aboriginal allies and several thousand militiamen, being farmers and others given training and weapons to help defend their towns and settlements.

[ David T. Jones: Canada has little to be proud of from the War of 1812 ]

Soon after hostilities began, two American attacks were repulsed, including one at Queenston Heights near Niagara Falls. Following an invasion, British forces under General Isaac Brock and Tecumseh, a Shawnee war chief, captured Fort Detroit. Tecumseh and his confederacy of more than a dozen First Nations had joined with the British to counter the escalating and brutal American expansion into their lands, hoping to create a sovereign Aboriginal nation.

In 1813, Americans launched an unexpected attack on York (Toronto), then Upper Canada's capital. They also forced the British to withdraw from the entire Niagara peninsula. In the autumn, they undertook their largest offensive by sending one army down the St. Lawrence River and another across the border into Lower Canada (Québec) to capture Montréal and thereby cut off the interior of Canada and presumably win the war. Two battles saved Montréal from attack. The U.S. army was defeated by the Voltigeurs, a French-Canadian regiment, along with militia, Aboriginals, and the Fencible Infantry at the Battle of Châteauguay. After a second defeat at Crysler's Farm, the Americans ended their invasion.

Following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Britain sent troops to Canada to begin a series of offensives, including a successful attack on Washington and the torching of the White House and other government buildings. The Americans engaged in several battles in the Niagara Peninsula, including Lundy's Lane, one of the bloodiest fought on Canadian soil during the war.

In August, peace talks between Britain and the U.S. began in the Netherlands. On Christmas Eve, representatives signed the Treaty of Ghent, which, when ratified, officially ended the war in 1815. Casualties on both sides were large: 7,000 to 10,000 Aboriginals, 10,000 Brits and Canadians, and 15,000 Americans.

The war was the last time Canada was directly invaded by a foreign military. It solidified borders and had an impact on relationships among our early communities, including Aboriginals, French and British colonists, and African Canadians. It set our country on the road to nationhood by crystallizing the process that led to Confederation in 1867.

Let's mark Canada Day this year by honouring all those who died in the War of 1812 for what we have today. It's an opportunity to commemorate both a formative event in our history and the evolution of Canada over two centuries.

Those living around the lower Great Lakes on both sides of the border at the time of the war were First Nations and European communities, having differing traditions and aspirations. Let's commemorate the tradition of pluralism that we value today, including the skills, leadership and courage of Aboriginal comrades in arms throughout the war.

The outcome assured the continuation of Canada's growth as a unique North American society. This is still evident in our political and judicial systems and cultures, currency, social values, sense of community, civic engagement and approach to issues. It also solidified our history as a safe haven for waves of immigrants; from African slaves escaping the U.S. to Irish immigrants escaping the famine.

The end of the War of 1812 also marked the beginning of almost 200 years of peaceful coexistence between Canada and the U.S, which is now our largest trading partner and closest political and cultural ally. We have much to commemorate and celebrate!

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.