The War of 1812 may be one of the world’s oddest conflicts, if only because both sides are confident they won.
A new survey suggests Canadians and Americans have vastly divergent attitudes towards the border war that broke out in 1812 and bumbled along for three years.
Americans see it as a war that produced their national anthem. Canadians see it as a war which saved them from American assimilation and preserved them from American politics, gun laws and shared citizenship with Snooki of the Jersey Shore.
During the course of the war, the Americans repeatedly tried to invade and were repeatedly repulsed, by often-outnumbered mixes of British redcoats, Canadian militia and aboriginal allies.
The Ipsos Reid poll conducted for the Historica Dominion Institute for the bicentennial of the war found that 54 per cent of Canadians felt the most significant outcome was that the invaders were turned back.
Given a list of things which might define Canadian identity, 53 per cent of respondents picked universal health care, but winning the War of 1812 and squelching the American invasion was ranked second, with 25 per cent support.
Americans had a dramatically different take. For a third of them, the key outcome of the war was their national anthem. Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the Star Spangled Banner after watching a British naval bombardment of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in September 1814. A plurality of 36 per cent saw no significant outcome at all.
When the Canadians were asked what would be their great concern had the war gone the other way, 60 per cent said they wouldn’t want to share the American political system.
“We agree that we do not want to be under the same politics and government system as they have in the States and we take pride in that,” said Jeremy Diamond, director of development and programs for the Historica Institute
Another 18 per cent of the Canadian respondents said they didn’t want American gun laws.
And six per cent said they didn’t want to share citizenship with Snooki and her cohorts from Jersey Shore.
John Wright of Ipsos Reid said the survey results reflect the development of the two countries. The War of 1812 doesn’t stand out for Americans because they see other, much bigger watersheds
“The War of Independence is their touchstone for their nationhood,” he said. “Ours seems to have been a gradual one.”
While some might point to 1812 as a key point on the way to nationhood, others might look at Vimy Ridge, or the patriation of the Constitution.
“We don’t see the 1812 war as a stand-alone piece as an American would see the War of Independence, because our nationhood has tended to be evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary.”
The American view is sharply different.
“Wars don’t play the most significant roles in our country because of the transitional nature of what we did, but in the United States wars play a really big part.”
Diamond said, however that Canadians seem to see the war as big event.
“This is a touchstone towards Confederation, it’s an important part of the story of Canada,” he said.
While they differ on the main outcomes, both Canadians and Americans agreed the war is worthy of commemoration.
More than 80 per cent of respondents on both sides of the border agreed that the war was a significant part of the history of their respective countries and about the same percentage agreed that their national governments should support commemoration of the war.
The Canadian government is spending at least $28 million on the bicentennial.
Almost 90 per cent of all respondents agreed that it is important to celebrate significant historical anniversaries.
But only 58 per cent of Americans and 49 per cent of Canadians agreed that their nation is good in promoting its history.
“There’s an interest in celebrating significant historical events,” said Diamond.
Wright agreed, noting that a good chunk of respondents said they would take part in some event to mark the anniversary.
“When I see that 31 per cent of the Canadian public, these are adults, say that they are going to take part in celebrations dealing with this sort of thing, and activities, that means that there are 10.5 million adults out there who will probably do something in the course of this year which actually commemorates the 1812 conflict.”
The country is entering a five-year period in which major anniversaries come thick and fast. This year it’s the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the War of 1812 bicentennial. Then, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. The year after that is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald. And 2017 is the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
Diamond says he sees a new kind of Canadian patriotism growing, which manifested itself during the Vancouver Olympics when wearing the Maple Leaf seemed the right thing to do.
“I think that the next set of opportunities here with these commemorations are going to give Canadians that chance again,” he said.
The Harper government has gone out of its way to stress the importance of Canadian history by promoting the Jubilee and the 1812 commemoration and by re-writing the citizenship test to require wider knowledge of the country’s heritage.
The government is already planning the commemorations of the next few years. If the poll is right about Canadian attitudes, then it may be on to something.
The poll was conducted Jan. 26-30. It sampled 1,015 Canadians and 1,015 Americans from the Ipsos online panel. Weighting was used to balance demographics. Unweighted this poll would have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Some facts about the War of 1812:
WHEN — The war ran from June 18, 1812 to January 1815.
WHY — The United States was angry over the British navy’s high-handed practice of snatching alleged deserters off American ships to serve in the Royal Navy. An expansionist faction in the United States believed Canada was ripe for the plucking because Britain was heavily engaged in fighting Napoleon
WHERE — Most of the fighting occurred on the Windsor-Detroit and Niagara frontiers, as well as in the area between Montreal and Lake Ontario.
MAJOR BATTLES — Queenston Heights, Oct. 13, 1812; York (now Toronto) April 27, 1813; Chateauguay, Oct. 26, 1813; Crysler’s Farm, Nov. 11, 1813; Lundy’s Lane, July 25-26 1814, Washington, D.C. Aug. 24, 1814; New Orleans, Jan. 8, 1915.
MAJOR FIGURES — Maj.-Gen. Isaac Brock was the British commander in the early months of the war. He was killed at the Queenston Heights repelling an American invasion force. Tecumseh assembled a coalition of natives to fight alongside the British. He was killed at Moraviantown Oct. 5 1813. Charles-Michel de Salaberry led a small force of mainly Quebec militiamen to defeat a much larger American invasion force at the battle of Chateauguay on Oct. 26 1813.
QUOTE — “Push on, brave York Volunteers,” last words attributed to Brock.
Here is a timeline for the War of 1812:
June 18, 1812 — President James Madison signs a declaration of War against Britain.
Aug. 16, 1812 — Maj.-Gen. Sir Isaac Brock captures Detroit.
Oct. 13, 1812 — Brock stops an American invasion at the Battle of Queenston Heights, but is killed in the fighting.
April 27, 1813 — The Americans cross Lake Ontario and burn York (now Toronto), then the capital of Upper Canada.
May 1813 — American forces overrun the Niagara Peninsula and capture Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Oct. 5, 1813 — Tecumseh, leading of a native coalition allied with the British, is killed at Moraviantown
Oct. 26, 1813 — A badly outnumbered force of French Canadian militiamen soundly defeat an American invasion force aiming for Montreal at the Battle of Chateaugauy.
Nov. 11, 1813 — Another outnumbered British force defeats another American invasion force at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm.
December 1813 — The British retake the Niagara Peninsula.
July 25-26 1814 — Another American invasion force is thwarted at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane.
Aug. 24, 1814 — A British force landed from the sea burns much of Washington.
Dec. 24, 1814 — Treaty of Ghent signed to end the war.
Jan. 8, 1815— Because transatlantic communications were so slow, the final major battle of the war was at New Orleans, two weeks after the treaty was signed.