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A TALE OF TWO NATIONS - COMMEMORATING THE WAR OF 1812
 
(2012 - Spring Issue)

Writer: ANN WALLACE



Groups of armed men are on the prowl.

Boats carrying soldiers, guns at the ready, make their way along the river. Battalions with bayonets fixed face each other across a wide field and, at the signal, advance. Flags and uniforms—crimson and blue—are resplendent. Drums roll and bugles sound. Soon the smell of gunpowder hangs in the late summer air and many men fall.

But it’s all such fun, because this is a re-enactment, one of many that take place every summer at forts and other historic sites in Canada and the United States, locations that played their part in the theatre of war 200 years ago in a conflict that became known as the War of 1812.

History Revisited

Of course, it wasn’t fun at all back then. The War began on June 18, 1812, when the United States declared war on Britain in response to British interference with American overseas trade and to Britain’s support for First Peoples’ resistance to American expansion. Deciding that Canada was a far easier target than Britain itself, the Americans commenced a series of invasions into Upper and Lower Canada. Although outnumbered, a valiant force composed of British regulars (members of the Royal Navy and British Army), French- and English-speaking Canadian militia and First People warriors repelled the invaders, but death, injury, hardship and sacrifice stalked both sides. The conflict was to last almost three years. It affected communities in Southern Ontario, New Brunswick, Québec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and in the United States; it changed the course of history and defined Canada as we know it today.

The war was finalized with the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, a year that marked the beginning of peace between the United States, Britain and Canada; a peace which has lasted for two centuries.

So in this bicentennial year all are invited to remember and commemorate these events in a variety of ways. The re-enactments in the historic sites promise to be even more elaborate than usual. And it’s not only the battles that are staged. Re-enactors come from Canada and the United States—men, women and children—all keen to meet and greet in friendship and keep our histories alive. They represent the soldiers in their different ranks and their families. There are cooks and surgeons, craftspeople and merchants, all representing the folks who were involved in the business of war as it was experienced at the beginning of the 19th century.

And from near and far come visitors to the sites. They range from serious historians to families desiring to spend a summer’s day being entertained in the open air. The former, no doubt, have their eyes peeled to ensure that the battles, skirmishes and life in the encampments are being re-enacted correctly. And they are. The flags are correct, the weapons genuine and the cooking pots could be in a museum. But most important of all are the clothes. From the splendid uniforms of the Royal Scots Grenadiers to the humble pinafores of the women, all are accurate. (At a re-enactment last year at Fanshawe Pioneer Village in London, Ontario—one of the largest—a young lad had to go about his chores barefoot. He had forgotten the shoes for his costume and his father would on no account allow him to wear his sneakers!)

A band of First Nations “warriors,” representing those who fought alongside the British to defend their lands, may be seen sitting apart. They look especially fierce with their war paint, feathers, clubs and tomahawks, but as visitors approach they break into broad smiles and welcome all into their group to describe their outfits, their roles in history and to relate the story of their brave ancestor . . . the Shawnee Warrior Tecumseh.

A Calendar of Events

In addition to the battle and encampment re-enactments, there will be many other events to enjoy at the Parks Canada National Historic Sites in the coming summer. These include firework spectacles, concerts of period and modern music, tall-ship visits and demonstrations of the lifestyle of the period in historic buildings. And Toronto’s Fort York, which fell defending the city of York in 1813 but which was rebuilt soon after, will be staging a special celebration in 2013 when it opens its spectacular new Visitor Centre.

In Ottawa, the Canadian War Museum will mark the bicentennial with one of the largest and most innovative exhibitions it has ever produced. 1812, due to open in June 2012, will weave together multiple perspectives of the conflict from the four central participants: Canada, the United States, Britain and First Peoples, thus offering visitors a richer and deeper understanding of the war. “The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is an opportunity for all Canadians to learn about, and reflect on, this seminal event in our nation’s military history,” said Mark O’Neill, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, which includes the Canadian War Museum. “We are proud to make such a major contribution to this commemoration.” The exhibition will feature about 150 artifacts, including an Indian Chief’s medal and the tunic worn by Sir Isaac Brock, “The Hero of Upper Canada,” when he was fatally shot during the Battle of Queenston Heights.

In a lighter vein, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Stratford, Ontario, will present VideoCabaret’s production of The War of 1812, part of Michael Hollingsworth’s multi-part play-cycle on Canadian history known as The History of the Village of the Small Huts. Scheduled to be staged in an intimate, specially-designed performance space, this play is sure to present an irreverent look at the war as an antidote to the more serious commemorations planned.

Outdoor adventurers can also plan to commemorate our nation-defining war in a unique way. The eight-day Great Waterfront Trail Adventure is a fully-supported bicycle tour that covers 720 kilometres from Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Ontario/Québec border, covering many of the arenas of the war as it passes through beautiful countryside and visits more than 40 Ontario communities.

At the Centre of it all

The theatre of this war spread over many provinces, but nowhere is the force of this history more keenly felt than in the Niagara peninsula. It is here that Laura Secord took her courageous walk and it is here that General Isaac Brock fell. “We’re really into it around here,” declares Pamela Mundy, who specializes in making civilian costumes of the period and lecturing on the food of that time. “My costumes will be seen on the streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake and many hotels and restaurants in the region, under my guidance, will be featuring traditional 19th-century food,” says Ms. Mundy.

Also caught up in the commemoration is the 180-member Niagara-on-the-Lake Bed and Breakfast Association. “We are organizing an Ambassadors of Peace Program,” says Association President Rick Jorgensen. “Our aim is to educate our B&B hosts on the rich heritage and history of the region, especially as it relates to the War of 1812, which will be commemorated with a variety of events in this region in the coming years. The hosts will attend seminars and receive certificates to display in their properties and on their websites. In this way, we hope to be able to answer all our guests’ historical questions.”

Niagara Historical Society Museum (the first museum dedicated to preserving and presenting the history of Ontario) also has a full calendar of events, including the Niagara on the Eve of War exhibition that will run until December 31, 2012. This exhibition reveals what the town was like just prior to and during the early stages of the War and, during the summer, their 1812 Walking Tours of the Town will include a unique theatrical presentation on the conflict.

And as all these busy days of commemoration draw to a close, what better way to toast the setting sun than with a glass of wine? Palantine Hills Estate Winery of Niagara-on-the-Lake, owned and operated by John and Barbara Neufeld, are creating “1812-brand” wines. It was while planting vines some years ago that John discovered British and American musket balls and other artifacts on his property, leading him to believe that he owned the site of many of the war’s skirmishes. With an interest in history, he decided to create “1812-brand” wines, offering a percentage of the proceeds to the local bicentennial committee as well as supporting 1812 events in other communities.

So the year of bicentennial commemoration has arrived. We will be offered many opportunities to learn and to look back and remember in a sombre fashion, as befits memories of any conflict. But we can also raise a glass to Canada, to our founders and heroes, to loyalty and courage and to 200 years of peace with our allies and neighbours.

Travel Planner

For more information on these and many more programs, visit:

Parks Canada National Historic Sites: pc.gc.ca

War of 1812: 1812.gc.ca; eighteentwelve.ca

The Canadian War Museum: warmuseum.ca

Stratford Shakespeare Festival: stratfordfestival.ca

Niagara-on-the-Lake Bed & Breakfast Association: niagarabedandbreakfasts.com

Niagara Historical Society & Museum: niagarahistorical.museum

Bicentennial events in Niagara-on-the-Lake: 1812niagaraonthelake.ca

 
 
 
 
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