I have just read the first chapter of Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, a new book by Kingston-based author Jamie Swift and Queen’s University historian Ian McKay. It is the story of how the Canadian government and military, assisted by complicit historians, think tanks and some media, are trying to shift public opinion to support a new militarism. “[They] are attempting to establish war as the pith and essence of all Canadian history,” Swift and McKay write. To do that, they have, in the words of the authors, to “conscript Canadian history” – that is, to glorify wars past and present.
The big project this year is an attempt to rebrand the War of 1812 between Britain (along with its Canadian colony) and the United States. That part of the war fought on what is now Canadian soil was, in reality, a series of tawdry and incompetently planned skirmishes in which neither side really won. But the “new warriors”, led by the Prime Minister Stephen Harper and assisted by a platoon of Defence department flacks and eager academics, are attempting to turn 1812 into an epic Canadian victory.
This is not only or even mainly about history – it is rather about using history to justify and glorify Canada’s recent military adventures in places like Afghanistan and Libya, to justify bloated expenditures on new jet planes and military hardware, not to mention to sustain an increasingly autocratic Canadian political regime.
Reading in Warrior Nation, I recalled an odd event from this past winter when I was skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. I stopped at the pillars under the Bank Street Bridge to view the exhibit of historical art work that is displayed there every winter by Library and Archives Canada (LAC). In other years, the display profiled various aspects of Canadian history (politics, sports, culture) through the use of print portraits housed at the LAC.
I was surprised to find this year that the only theme was the War of 1812. All of eight or 10 portraits on display (Sir Isaac Brock, Laura Secord, Tecumseh and others) related to that war. I recall thinking, What is this all about? Now, thanks to Swift and McKay I know.
In an opinion piece accompanying their book’s launch, the authors quote Prime Minister Harper as saying that the War of 1812 “was the beginning of a long and proud military history in Canada.” He adds, “The heroic efforts of Canadians then helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we salute.”
Swift and McKay report that the Prime Minister has decided to commemorate the war with a celebration that will cost Ottawa $28 million – although as we have seen recently with estimated costs of the C-35 jet fighter or the campaign to bomb Libya, projected costs have little to do with the real costs.
There are plans in June to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Stoney Creek, which will bring re-enactors of the encounter to suburban Hamilton. “There will be music, costumes, games, readings and tours,” Swift and McKay write. “And certainly musket fire.” (I witnessed a similar weird spectacle several years ago in Gettysburg, where grown men wearing both Confederate grey and Union blue military uniforms camped out on the Civil War battle site and spent their weekend carrying muskets and crawling through the woods).
A mere prelude
Swift and McKay predict that the 1812 celebrations are “a mere prelude to sure-to-be-much-bigger-and-more-glorious commemorations in the next few years. The centenary of World War I looms large in the minds of militarists and the far right as they set about priming Canadians for the celebration of Vimy and all the rest. It will romanticize that ghastly spasm of ineptitude in the service of a Birth of a Nation story, all the while airbrushing out its incalculable costs.”
Push back in Stouffville
In Stouffville, north of Toronto, Conservative MP Paul Calandra is planning for a military parade to commemorate the 1812 war and he also wants a flyover of CF-18 jets. There appears to be a recent obsession with flyovers. Last fall the government spent $800,000 for a flyover in Ottawa to celebrate Canada’s having bombed the Libyans to freedom.
Town council in Stouffville voted 4-2 to approve Calandra’s scheme but there has been a push back. People belonging to the area’s peace churches (Mennonite, Quaker, and Brethren in Christ) are asking that the event be toned down. An article in The Globe and Mail quotes spokesperson Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, a Mennonite ordained minister and associate academic dean at Tyndale Seminary, as telling the Stouffville council that Calandra’s proposed event doesn’t accurately reflect the history of the town, which was founded by Mennonites who objected to war. “It’s an affront to a truthful telling of that history,” he says.
Ironically, the federal government, which has $28 million to spend on flyovers and grown men donning soldier uniforms to reenact 200 year-old battles, decided this year to chop funding to the much-admired Mennonite Central Committee. The $2.9 million requested from CIDA was to provide food, water and income generation assistance for people in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Haiti, Bolivia, Mozambique and Ethiopia.
Push back in St. Catharines
In the St. Catharines area, peace churches have organized an 1812 Bicentennial Peace Committee to provide an alternative voice to the official celebrations. Historian Jonathan Seiling, who is committee chair, is quoted in the as saying there is “ample evidence of a loud, vocal, and even civilly disobedient resistance to participation in the War of 1812.” He adds, “There are many examples of churches confronting authorities and demanding the right to express their religious freedom to abstain from warfare … We want to recognize that Canada has a long tradition of religious freedom and being hospitable to groups that opposed warfare.”
The group has also created a blog called War Resistance in 1812, which is hosted by the Mennonite Central Committee, Ontario.
History and muckraking
Jamie Swift is a journalist and activist; Ian McKay is an historian. Warrior Nation contains both an historian’s deep context and muckraker’s edge designed both to inform and to elicit reaction.
Book launch in Ottawa
For my Ottawa and area readers: Swift and McKay will be on hand to talk about Warrior Nation on Thursday, June 14, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Under One Roof, 251 Bank Street, 2nd Floor, (at the corner of Bank & Cooper). NDP MP Charlie Angus will be the emcee. For more information contact Matthew Adams at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Warrior Nation can be purchased after May 26 from Between the Lines books.