For my event, I’ve chosen the War of 1812, which was one of the most (if not the most) important, key defining moments in creating a distinct Canadian identity.
I will now go over the effects of the war on each of the four quadrants. I’ll begin with the environmental aspect, as there are no sources that talk about it and quite honestly not much to cover. The war itself probably caused a bit of damage to the environment, but the impact was most likely minimal due to the fact that high explosive shells had yet to be invented and the industrial revolution hadn’t happened yet. The only other cause of environmental change I can think of would be the resulting borders between Canada and the USA and its possible effects on land development. But in the end, that’s a very distant connection, and to count it as a major environmental change with my current information would be nothing short of grasping at straws.
The war of 1812 had a slightly larger impact on the economic quadrant, but the impact didn’t last long. As with most wars, a large amount of money was poured into it: 5.92 million pounds, to be exact. During the war, “the Government of Lower Canada made the decision to issue legal tender notes called army bills to pay for troops and supplies” (Bergeron). After the war, all the army bills were paid off quickly. Unfortunately, that left the government with very little money left to compensate all the war’s losses. ”As a result, the Canadas fell into a recession, with many merchants financially ruined because of oversupply, falling demand, depreciating prices and no capital” (Bergeron).
Next is the social quadrant. This quadrant contains possibly the greatest change of all, though I will be discussing that primarily in the “Canadian identity vs postnational state” section, as it relates directly to Canadian national identity. One important social change with effects lasting to this day came with the death of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. Tecumseh was leading a movement for First Nations groups to work together and create their own confederacy. “The death of Tecumseh and the defeat of the First Nations at the Battle of the Thames broke apart Tecumseh’s confederacy”. “Tecumseh’s death was the end of serious resistance in the Northwest. Odawa Chief Naywash said it clearly: ‘Since our Great Chief [Tecumseh] has been killed we do not listen to one another, we do not rise together’” (Marsh). Another important social change was the conflict between America and Britain (with Canada along with it). During and after the war, tensions ran high between the two sides. However, “Whatever the resonance now, it probably doesn’t involve continued animosity toward those south of the border” (Tharoor). Well… at least no animosity related to the War of 1812.
Finally, the political quadrant. First of all, when the peace treaty known as the “Treaty of Ghent” was signed at the end of the war, it “simply affirmed pre-war borders” (Tharoor). That basically sums up the entire political result of the war. In the words of Pierre Burton, “It was as if no war had been fought, or to put it more bluntly, as if the war that was fought was fought for no good reason. For nothing has changed; everything is as it was in the beginning save for the graves of those who, it now appears, have fought for a trifle.” The only people who “lost” the war would be the First Nations, who lost their leader and thereby their chance at becoming their own political power.
On to question 2!
The War of 1812 is often considered to be the defining moment for Canadian identity as a whole. Before the war, Canada was made up of a broad mix of people from different cultures – quite similar to how it is today. There were British colonists, French-speaking Quebecois, First Nations people, and Americans who’d just moved in. In fact, “Before 1812 many settlers, especially in what is now Ontario, did not feel particularly Canadian.” The war of 1812 changed that. “Collectively fighting for their land, and seeing it ravaged by an invader, went a long way in hammering these people into a unified whole — into Canadians” (thestar.com). “Although the majority of the fighting was done by British regulars and First Nations warriors, a myth developed that civilian soldiers had won the war, and this helped to germinate the seeds of nationalism in the Canadas” (Berton/Marsh).
Nationalism and patriotism weren’t the only parts of Canadian identity that were formed by the war; the war also planted the seeds of a different – yet perhaps just as important – part of our identity. Victor Suthren states that “The sufferings of Canadian civilians at the hands of American troops […] gave the people of Upper Canada a strong sense, not so much of who they were, but certainly who they were not” (Suthren). Suthren’s statement suggests that the War of 1812 was not the defining factor in Canada’s identity, but in doing so, it actually explains a lot about an unusual quirk in Canadian identity: our love-hate relationship with the USA. Shortly after the previous statement, Suthren states that despite the suffering the Americans had caused the Canadians, “when the passions of the war faded, Upper Canadians soon returned to a more natural relationship with the American communities across the border, and re-knit ties of kinship, trade and friendship that the war had, in most eyes, needlessly sundered” (Suthren). So while Canadians bear America no ill will relating to the War of 1812, we are still quite eager to point out our differences from our southern neighbours, especially with the state of America today. That signature “not-american-ist” attitude is still a defining trait of Canada’s identity to this day, and it began with the War of 1812.
Finally, on to question 3. Prepare for a lot of opinions and philosophy…
In my opinion, instead of becoming a postnational state or trying to find a more clear and distinct Canadian national identity, we should keep going in the same direction we are now. This may not seem to answer the question, but I’ll explain what I mean later. To start off, I believe that as Canadians, we have a vague but very real national identity. There are a few aspects of it that are very recognizable: our aforementioned love-hate relationship with the US, our acceptance of diversity, our apologetic attitude, and perhaps most importantly, our apparent lack of a clear national identity. A national identity exists, but should we discard it completely?
I believe the answer to be “no”. First of all, I am not saying that our Canadian national identity should be more obvious or concrete. In fact, the fluidity of our identity is most likely the reason Canada has become the focal point for cosmopolitan culture it is today. But to abandon the things that define Canada and bring Canadians together sort of defeats the entire purpose of our entire country-based society in the first place. For instance, the military and national defence. First off, let me clarify that I do indeed believe that we should focus our efforts more on peace rather than war, and that keeping our military size low lets us accomplish more than we normally could. However, there will inevitably come a time when we will have no choice but to wage war against another country, for one reason or another. When that happens, what will Canadians be fighting for? How are they supposed to fight for their country if they have no national identity; what’s the point of fighting for something that doesn’t exist? This kind of situation is where a national identity, even a vague one, is an invaluable asset to our country’s success.
But let me rewind and take a look at the situation from a different angle. What if the correct question is not “should we abandon our national identity”, but “can we abandon our national identity?” I touched on this at the beginning of this section, but I believe the fluid and undefined nature of Canadian identity is at the core of Canadian identity itself. If we choose to abandon national identity, that is a choice that all Canadians share; one that sets us apart from all other countries in the world. If that’s the case, then what is that shared, nationwide decision other than a part of our national identity? By abandoning our old identity, we’re effectively creating a new one. Therefore, I believe it to be impossible for Canadians to truly break free of the bonds that hold them together as a proudly semi-coherent nation.
As Canadians, we have prospered because of our lack of a distinct national identity. I don’t see much point in trying to make our identity clearer than it already is, as that would contradict the very identity we’re trying to clarify. I’m all for trying to become a postnational state (note that in the first paragraph, I didn’t advise against trying), but actually becoming a postnational state would be impossible. The act of trying would instead create a new identity with stronger multicultural values and a more fluid identity – in short, more of what makes us proud to be Canadian, and more of what we as Canadians fight to maintain. This brings my point full circle: the nature of Canadian identity is very unique in that trying to change it in one way will only push it in the opposite direction. Trying to achieve a postnational state will both clarify and obscure Canada’s national identity in a way, but I think that change will turn out for the best.
Suthren, Victor. “A Canadian Perspective.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wned/war-of-1812/essays/canadian/.
Tharoor, Ishaan. “Why Canada Cares Much More about the War of 1812.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 27 Aug. 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/08/27/why-canada-cares-much-more-about-the-war-of-1812/?utm_term=.703edeaf8c5c.
Bergeron, David. “Funding the War of 1812.” www.bankofcanadamuseum.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Funding-the-War-of-1812.pdf.
Marsh, James H. “Tecumseh.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 23 Oct. 2011, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/tecumseh/.
Marsh, James H., and Pierre Berton. “War of 1812.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 6 Mar. 2012, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/war-of-1812/
“The War of 1812 Shaped Canada Forever.” Thestar.com, 17 June 2012, www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2012/06/17/the_war_of_1812_shaped_canada_forever.html.