Each year, there’s an event that I look forward to immensely – but it’s one that most Canadians know very little about.
It’s the annual gathering of the Canadian Historical Association – an event that brings together the brightest minds in Canadian history to share new research into our nation’s past.
This year, the meetings are being held at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ontario. The title of the conference is “Scholarship at a Crossroads.”
On Monday morning, I headed to the campus to hunt for new research that has what we call in the magazine business “story potential.”
Although I’m the Editor-in-Chief of a history magazine — and although I have published several books that deal with public history — I’m not what you would consider an upper-case “H” Historian. I don’t spend countless hours in dusty archives searching for new source material – in the magazine business, there’s always a new and looming deadline to meet. And so, I’m incredibly grateful to the professional and academic historians who do the heavy lifting in the trenches to uncover new perspectives – and new stories – in Canadian history.
Most of my first day at the CHA meetings was spent attending sessions relating to the War of 1812 bicentennial that’s currently underway across Canada.
It’s a fascinating subject, because it’s a conflict filled with shades of grey. Involving Britain, Canada, Aboriginal nations and America, it was a smaller part of the wider Napoleonic wars that torn apart much of Europe in the early 1800s. Some might say that it decided the ultimate geo-political fate of North America.
A day earlier, on Sunday, I had the privilege of traveling through the Niagara region of Ontario, visiting three different War of 1812 battlefield sites. It was great preparation for Monday’s conversations surrounding the way we commemorate the war, and the controversies that have arisen around those commemorations.
There are many schools of thought in terms of what is the “right” way to remember the war. For traditional military historians, and indeed, for many typical Canadians, the war is largely remembered for its military aspects – who fought who, when did the battles occur, did we win or lose, etc, and why.
But some historians have decried what they claim is an “overly militaristic” tone surrounding the current and upcoming bicentennial commemoration events. For me, it’s a tough one. Surely there’s a way to ensure all sides are fairly represented in the narrative, without totally ignoring the “traditional” military aspects of the war. The courage it required for soldiers to fight in this bloody and brutish conflict is beyond belief. This was a war that saw both sides commit and suffer what we today would call “atrocities.” Civilian populations were attacked, homes and communities were put to the torch, and prisoners were massacred. It’s a war of promises and betrayals, often fought with incompetence and ill planning. When I think of the War of 1812, I think of repeated battles where defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory; hills and forts are stormed for no apparent strategic reason, only to be given up days or weeks later. For the Aboriginal nations, it was a war fought to preserve their traditional homelands. In that sense, they were the biggest losers of the entire affair.
During a session on “Conflict and its Legacies: Indigenous Peoples and the War of 1812,” Robin Jarvis Brownlie of the University of Manitoba spoke about how the European newcomers not only stole Aboriginal land – they even co-opted the Six Nations’ greatest warrior chief, Tecumseh and used him as a propaganda tool in attempts to “civilize” Aboriginals.
It’s been 200 years since the war, but its repercussions are still felt today. Stephanie Danyluk of the University of Saskatchewan shared with use the story of the Dakota people, who have fought a long legal battle with the government of Canada to be granted the same rights as Canadian “status Indians.” The debate stems from events in the War of 1812. Danyluk explained that that the Dakota originally lived between modern-day Detroit and Minnesota, and fought for the British during the War of 1812 during the campaigns on that frontier. The Dakota claim that, in exchange for helping the British fight the war, they were promised land and protection in Canada if they ever required, or desired it. Beginning in the 1860s, a series of clashed with the Americans forced the Dakota north into Canada. But rather than being welcomed, the Dakota were treated like illegal aliens, considered American Indians who had no right or title to land in Canada. So far, efforts by the Dakota to use the courts to force Canada to accept their historic demands have failed.
A little later in the day, I attended a session on the commemoration of the war — specifically, on how Canadians sought to celebrate the war’s centenary. Historians Brandon Dimmel of the University of Western Ontario, Ross Fair of Ryerson University, and Elaine Young of the University of Guelph each gave compelling talks about the public and political struggles Canadians faced with regards to the commemoration.
In Toronto, for instance, there was a big drive to build a national War of 1812 monument. But, as Ross Fair showed us, the drive ultimately stalled, in part, because no level of government was willing to foot the $200,000 bill for the planned monument.
It also turns out that not all Canadians were keen to commemorate the war – or at least, to commemorate it in the way the government of the day intended – as a celebration of a “century of peace” with the Americans. Dimmel said that while Canadians living far from the War of 1812 battlefields thought it was a great idea, those closer to the action still had long memories of the atrocities committed. With so many of their relatives injured or killed in the conflict, there was little stomach for partying it up with the Americans. At that point, they weren’t ready to forgive, or forget.
One of the best parts of covering this event is coming across young historians who are doing pushing boundaries with their research. I especially enjoyed a session by Laurie Betram
of the University of Alberta titled, “Sweatstains and bullet Holes: Clothing, Memory and the Material Culture of Trauma.” It was really thought-provoking stuff, and I hope to have her write about her research in an upcoming issue of Canada’s History magazine. That’s it for now. Next up, Day 2 of the conference, and also, my coverage of Tuesday night’s CHA’s awards gala, where some lucky – and deserving – historian will go home with the top prize for academic history writing in Canada, the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize.