The 1867 as Year Zero School of Canadian History Meets the War of 1812

President Trump has not only killed thirty years of free trade between Canada and the United States but also set off a bizarre firestorm about the War of 1812, of all things. In what has been reported to be a tense conversation over the telephone with Prime Minister Trudeau, who questioned Trump’s bogus rationale of imposing a tariff on Canadian steel and aluminium on the grounds of “national security,” the President asked — and “I would suggest […] if you know the president, that was probably a facetious remark” — whether Canada had burned down the White House in 1814.

Interestingly, the answer is in the negative. A British regiment, rather than a British North American militia, sacked Washington in August 1814, burning various government buildings including the Capitol and the White House, apparently as revenge for the Americans having burned down Upper Canada’s Parliament in York (now Toronto) in April 1813, or perhaps more generally as revenge for the Revolutionary War. In 1813, the invading Americans had stolen the mace from the Parliament of Upper Canada and ferried it back to Washington as a wartrophy. It is telling that when English-speaking peoples fight one another, they deploy as their most devastating psychological warfare the looting and burning of representative legislatures. I’m not sure how this idea that Canadians, rather than British regulars, sacked Washington became so entrenched in the Canadian psyche; it subsumes British North American and Canadian identity entirely into British identity by failing to distinguish between colonial militias and regulars. And, ironically enough, so does this other false narrative.

Similarly, this little kerfuffle has revealed another bizarre manifestation of the 1867 as Year Zero School of Canadian history: this all-too-common misapprehension that “Canada didn’t exist in 1812!” — usually screamed by red-faced anti-monarchists or trumpeted proudly by the obtuse and pedantic, as if they had just said something profound, instead of something merely profoundly stupid.

First, as a matter of legal-constitutional fact, “Canada” as a polity traces a direct and unbroken line to the Constitutional Act, 1791. As I presented at the Constitution at 150 Conference at the Universite de Montreal in May 2017, the British North America Act, 1867 explicitly continues executive and legislative authority from the Province of Canada to the Dominion of Canada and to the provinces of Ontario and Quebec (depending upon the division of powers under the new federal arrangement), and the Act of Union, 1841 likewise continued the executive and legislative authority of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. And, of course, English (later British) and French colonial settlement in North America go back even farther than the creation of the current Canadian polity in 1791. I’d expect this sort of anti-colonialist ignorance from an American authority, like Daniel Victor of The New York Times, but I expect better from Canadians.

Second, this obtuse ahistoricism masquerading as profound literalism that “Canada didn’t exist in 1812!” also defies commonsense. “But IT WAS A COLONY!” they screech. By that logic, you might have to dismiss all of Canadian history before the Statute of Westminster in 1931 instead of merely dismissing all of Canadian history before Confederation or whatever other arbitrary date you choose, because Canada remained subject to the absolute jurisdiction of the Imperial Parliament until then. Similarly, by this same perverse logic, you’d have to draw some other very obtuse conclusions, like that the Americans couldn’t possibly have fought their own Revolutionary War because the United States didn’t really become a country until foreign powers recognized it as such after the Treaty of Paris of 1783. You’d also have to conclude that Australia was wrong to have celebrated its bicentennial in 1988 as a commemoration of Captain Cook’s landing in 1788 and claim on the island-continent for the British Empire. Instead, you’d have to say that Australia, as in the Commonwealth of Australia, will not celebrate its bicentennial until 2101. This is also the same sort of pseudo-profound abstract nonsense which underpins American libertarian assertions that “America is an idea, not a place.”

The War of 1812 seems quixotic and obscure today. Ultimately, from the point of view of the British Empire as a whole and the United States, the war essentially resulted in a draw and the status quo ante bellum: the British finally started abiding by the Jay Treaty of 1795 and withdrew its forces from lands south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi claimed by the United States, lost the Battle of New Orleans — which, hilariously, occurred after the Treaty of Ghent had formally ended the war — and fled Washington only one day after sacking it. The British also stopped impressing American merchant marine into the Royal Navy and halted its trade war with the United States. But from the Canadian point of view, we won because we successfully fought off an American invasion of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. In war, the belligerents initiating the invasion lose if they fail to capture their enemy’s territory, and the belligerents responding to an invasion win if they cause the status quo ante to prevail, merely by holding off their enemy.

The fact that British North American militia successfully defended the Canadas from an American invasion makes this anti-monarchist, anti-colonial obtuse ahistorical narrative that “Canada didn’t exist in 1812!” even stranger. Only in Canada would victory in war lead to less nationalism and an outright denial of history.          

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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1 Response to The 1867 as Year Zero School of Canadian History Meets the War of 1812

  1. Chris Miller says:

    There are those who do understand Canada (like so many other countries) as a place with a history preceding the union of the original three BNA provinces. Montreal’s Jacques-Cartier bridge has a dedicatory inscription on one of the pillars on St. Helen’s Island recalling the explorer’s role in the founding of Canada (which I brought up several years ago in a rebuttal of an opinion piece by Josée Legault that claimed Quebec is older than Canada), and there is a similar plaque in Montreal’s city hall:


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