Spinning the War of 1812

  • Article by: IAN AUSTEN , New York Times
  • Updated: October 8, 2012 - 7:29 PM

Canada is spending $28 million to mark the bicentennial of the war, calling it an act of U.S. aggression.

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Part of Canada’s bicentennial activities include re-enactors of the War of 1812, including these at the Glengarry Pioneer Museum.

Photo: Dave Chan, New York Times

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DUNVEGAN, ONTARIO - Although it produced "The Star-Spangled Banner," the War of 1812 does not get much attention in the United States. In Canada, however, the federal government is devoting surprising attention to the bicentennial of the conflict, which it describes bluntly in a new TV commercial as an act of U.S. aggression against Canada.

Much about the war is fiercely debated by historians but one thing is clear: Canada was not yet a country at the time of the war, which pitted the United States against the British.

As sweeping budget cuts affect historic sites and national parks, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has set aside about $28 million for events, advertising and exhibits to commemorate the war. The government's enthusiasm has puzzled and angered many people here, where flag-waving forms of patriotism are more subdued than they are south of the border.

"Two hundred years ago, the United States invaded our territory," a narrator says over dark images and ominous music in the government's ad. "But we defended our land; we stood side by side and won the fight for Canada."

As the founding president of the Historica-Dominion Institute, a charity that promotes Canadian history, Andrew Cohen, who teaches journalism and international relations at Carleton University in Ottawa, has been a particularly outspoken critic of the government.

"The War of 1812 is part of our history, and that's fine," said Cohen, who first publicly took issue with the government's effort in a column for the Ottawa Citizen. But, he added: "It's turned into a form of propaganda, and it seems to have married the government's interest in the military with its interest, some would say obsession, with the War of 1812. It's clearly, to me, part of a campaign to politicize history."

During its first six years, Harper's Conservative government expanded military spending and shifted the focus of Canadian troops away from U.N. peacekeeping missions and toward an expanded combat role in Afghanistan. Far more than other recent prime ministers, Harper attends military events and praises the armed forces in his speeches.

David J. Bercuson, a military historian at the University of Calgary in Alberta, does not share Cohen's criticism of the government, but he said he found its keen interest in the War of 1812 somewhat mysterious. "I'm scratching my head for the last year and asking myself: 'Why is the government placing so much emphasis on this war?'" he said.

The answer, according to James Moore, who as minister of Canadian heritage is in charge of the campaign, is that the government simply wants the long-ago war, which few Canadians know well, to be remembered.

"Canada was invaded, the invasion was repelled and we endured, but we endured in partnership with the United States," Moore said. "It's a very compelling story."

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