The battle was contested at Fort York, located then on the shores of the lake. Today, thanks to landfill as the city has grown, the old fort sits incongruously amidst skyscrapers and an elevated expressway, almost a kilometer from the water. Here, interpreters clad in period costumes lead visitors around a 43-acre facility housing Canada’s largest collection of buildings from the War of 1812. It is at Fort York Historic Site, as much as anywhere else in this country, that the Canadian narrative of the war is articulated again and again during this bicentennial observation.
“We were outnumbered,” says Thom Sokolski, a Toronto artist who is organizing a bicentennial art exhibit at the Fort called The Encampment. “We were refugees, American Loyalists, British soldiers, First Nations [Native Americans]…a mixed bag of people who realized they had a common land to defend.”
“We showed the Americans of the time that we weren’t just these quiet, timid people of the North,” says Phillip Charbonneau, a resident of nearby Kitchener who was visiting the Fort with a friend on a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-May. “I think we should take some pride in that.”
“We’re a small country,” says Torontonian Al Leathem, at Fort York with his wife Neisma and nine-year-old son Liam. “This is a nice victory to have, beating the Americans back then, right? It’s important for our identity.”
Indeed, identity-building and bonding is a big part of all this. Americans often forget that our neighbors to the north are in some senses as much a patchwork as we are, which is one reason the current Conservative government of prime minister Stephen Harper is putting renewed emphasis on the War of 1812.
“This is, in their view, a teachable moment,” says Taylor. “The Harper government is trying to define Canadian patriotism in a way that builds upon this moment in the past.” Part of the re-telling, Taylor says, emphasizes “this perceived unity between French- and English-speaking Canadians in the hopes it will translate into the present.”
With a few notable exceptions, however, French-speaking Canada did not see much fighting during the war. Ontario, then known as Upper Canada, and now the largest province, is where much of the action took place. Other parts of this vast nation—most notably the lands that now encompass the western provinces—were as removed from the hostilities as Australia.
“If you’re from British Columbia, the War of 1812 means almost nothing,” says Fort York’s historian Richard Gerrard.
It’s hoped that the bicentennial may change that; as will some other new initiatives including, as of April, 2011, the inclusion of questions about the War of 1812 in the Canadian citizenship test.
“I knew there was a War of 1812, but that’s about it,” says Laura Riley, with a laugh. Riley, visiting the Fort to learn more about this chapter of her adopted nation’s history, is a native of Great Britain who now lives in Toronto.