While preparing for this evening’s program on the War of 1812, I spoke with Elaine Young, a Ph.D. history candidate at the University of Guelph. Her research focuses on the evolving use of the War of 1812 battlefields between the 1880s and the 1940s. I asked her to write blog post on how the Niagara region commemorated the War of 1812 100 years ago.
As Canadians gear up to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 in a variety of ways, including reenactments, concerts, and museum displays (not to mention television programs), it's worth remembering that we are not the first generation to commemorate this conflict. Ontario’s Niagara region saw the war’s most intense fighting, and was the scene of two major centennial celebrations in 1912 and 1914. The centennial of the battle of Queenston Heights, or as one organizer called it, Brock’s “death-day,” and the Lundy’s Lane centennial two years later saw thousands of people gather on the former battlefields to listen to patriotic speeches and commemorate the events of 100 years before.
The celebrations were organized by local historical and patriotic societies that received some funding from the Dominion government. Most of the speakers at these events were government representatives and local history enthusiasts. However, these societies also invited representatives of the Six Nations to take part.
Chief Alexander Hill of the Grand River Six Nations spoke at both celebrations, and used the opportunity to call for political representation for his people based on their participation in not only the War of 1812, but the American Revolutionary War. “The original owners of this country,” Smith stated, “who fought and won Britain’s battles, ceased to be men and became minors after the battles were won and British predominance secured.” Based on the Six Nations’ loyalty to the British Crown, Smith argued, they should be given the same rights as other citizens. Chief Smith called on the audience at both celebrations to support the Six Nations’ quest for political rights, but, perhaps predictably, the cheers of the crowd did not translate to political action on their behalf.
The majority of the centennial celebrations were dedicated to celebrating the events of 100 years before. Most of the speakers were staunchly pro-British, and stressed that Canada’s past, and future, lay in close ties to Britain. The War of 1812 was pointed to as a significant moment in Canadian history because it had preserved the country as part of the British Empire. Although some mention was made of the 100 years of peace between Britain and the United States, more time was spent revelling in the heroism of the country’s defenders, both British and Canadian. One speaker asserted that in war “the character of the people must be taken into consideration. Though a small number … they were in the breach to die,” while others praised the heroic virtues of Sir Isaac Brock.
In 1913, writing about the centennial of Queenston Heights, John Stewart Carstairs of Toronto wondered, “Perhaps in another hundred years, when other generations come together to commemorate the efforts of these men that with Brock and Macdonell strove to seek and find and do and not to yield, the skirmish at Queenston may be viewed in a different light.” I look forward to upcoming bicentennial celebrations in hopes of answering that question.
Photo Credit: Alexander Fraser, LL.D./William Briggs.