How Canada Celebrates the War of 1812 | History | Smithsonian
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Canadian reenactors recreate a battle from the War of 1812 in London, Ontario. (Mark Spowart / Demotix/Demotix / Corbis)

How Canada Celebrates the War of 1812

The Rodney Dangerfield of wars in the United States, the 19th-century conflict is given great respect by our Northern neighbors

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You don’t have to go very far across the border to get the Canadian take on the War of 1812.

At passport control in Toronto’s Preston Pearson Airport, a border agent asks an American traveler the purpose of his visit. When told that he is in Canada on business, and part of that business is the War of 1812, she launches into a concise but remarkably informed summary of the war—invoking the iconic Canadian heroes of the conflict, and even suggesting some significant historical spots around Ontario associated with specific engagements of the war worth visiting.

When it is pointed out to the agent that she seemed to know much more about the War of 1812 than your typical American, she raises her eyebrows and smiles, before stamping the visitor’s passport.

 “Well,” she says. “That’s because you lost.”

Americans—losers in a war? We don’t hear that too often, even in the telling of this vaguely-known chapter of our history. But it’s striking to see the differences in Canada, where the bicentennial of the conflict is being marked by a nationwide program of events, ranging from art exhibits to re-enactments, as well as $20 million worth of capital improvements to various war-related historic sites around Canada.

 “It matters to Canada,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, author of The Civil War of 1812. “In a way, they can compensate for the great asymmetry of power in our relationship with them by having boasting rights in this obscure war that occurred 200 years ago.”

While boasting about anything outside of hockey prowess is not part of Canadians’ self-effacing nature, they are proud of their version of the war, which has nothing to do with the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air. The Canadian narrative of the War of 1812 is a David-versus-Goliath struggle. Or maybe it’s the Alliance versus the Empire.

And in this version, can you guess who the Imperial Storm troopers were?

 “The Americans are viewed as the aggressors and invaders in that war,” says Wayne Reeves, chief curator for Toronto’s Museums and Heritage Services. “No two ways about that.”

Nowhere is this felt more keenly than in Reeves’s city—which in 1813, when it was known as York, was invaded by the United States. In the battle, outnumbered and retreating British and Canadian forces set off a 30,000-pound cache of gunpowder, rattling windows on the far side of Lake Ontario, and killing many Americans, including their commander, General Zebulon Pike (of Peak’s fame). The American troops then went on a rampage, burning government buildings in the city. A year later, in retaliation for this, the British burned Washington, D.C.

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