It was the war that defined Canada.
The War of 1812 is probably most familiar to people in southern Ontario, where it was chiefly fought, but even those involved were from all over then-settled parts of Canada.
One of the most important units to fight in the war came from Newfoundland. One of the most successful Canadian units was in fact a Canadien unit – from Quebec. And while most of the land battles were fought in and around Ontario, there were sea battles along the east coast and land battles west of the Great Lakes. Perhaps the most spectacular success for the British and Canadian side was fought near Washington D.C. And their biggest failure was near New Orleans – after the war officially ended.
At the time, global attention was focused on the British and her allies’ war against Napoleon Bonaparte. Canada and the United States were backwaters, although not entirely ignored.
The United States had broken from the British Empire more than 30 years earlier and its refusal to sink money into a navy left its commercial fleet vulnerable to pirates and the British Royal Navy. The Royal Navy needed every British sailor the country produced, so it would stop American ships, search for British subjects working as sailors and "impress" them back into service for Britain. The Americans were equally resentful of British blockades of ships bound to and from France, interrupting trade during Britain’s wars with France.
That’s the official reason the States declared war in June of 1812. The unofficial reason was it really didn’t like Britain retaining an interest in North America – it wanted the rest of the continent for itself.
Surprisingly, despite the war, business between the two countries flourished in some areas. Joe Martin, former president and chair of the National Historical Society that publishes Canada’s History Magazine (formerly The Beaver), says some Vermont businessmen suggested Montreal should have built a statue to U.S. President John Madison as a tribute to the man who helped the business community of Montreal. The eastern seaboard states and the Maritimes continued clandestine trade as well – often it was with family and friends on the other side of the border.
Through the years, the War of 1812 was considered a minor one, but it had a great impact on Britain, especially its Royal Navy, as well as France, the United States and, mostly, Canada, where it proved to be a huge step in the making of a nation.
Until 1812, Canada had depended on Britain for almost everything from manufactured goods to soldiers to money. The war gave us our own bank – the Montreal Bank, later called the Bank of Montreal. It gave us a sense of self-confidence and underlined the importance of a form of confederacy between the remaining provinces (although we didn’t take the hint right away).
Quebec residents, for the most part, showed they were loyal to the British flag and a solid partner with English-speaking Canada, with an impressive show of arms against American actions. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment provided trained sea-worthy land troops to defend Ontario, fight on the Great Lakes as sailors and marines and in some cases, stay and settle.
We, Canadians – although we didn’t call ourselves this yet for the most part – found we could trust and depend on each other during dark times.
Today, many street names in our communities are given in tribute to the people who took part in the war – now forgotten. Southern Ontario and beyond is littered with seldom-read historical markers placed on battlefields, from Lake Superior to Lake Erie and as far south as New Orleans, from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s been 200 years. It’s time to remember.
– Tom Villemaire was an award-winning writer and editor for QMI Agency and a published historian. His book, Colossal Canadian Failures, co-written with fellow QMI Agency journalist, Randy Richmond, was nominated for a Leacock Award for Humour.