Tuesday 3 July 2012

Re-thinking losers and winners in the War of 1812

by Jamie Swift
Those of us who have criticized the Harper government’s love-in with the War of 1812 have become accustomed to accusations of being spoil sports. “What’s wrong with celebrating Canadian history?"

Well, nothing at all. But let’s take a broad look at that handful of inconclusive skirmishes marked, as they were, by equal measures of human suffering and military incompetence. Instead of the official prattle about how the war determined “which flag we salute” (Stephen Harper) and “paved the way for Confederation” (Toronto Sun), let’s get beyond the age-regression fantasies of re-enactors who get dressed up to play soldier as they try to recreate Lundy’s Lane or Chrysler’s Farm.

Tom Korski put it well in a recent Hill Times article. “Any true 1812 recreation would require that actors be 5’3’, with smallpox scars and bad teeth, forced to gum half-cooked cornmeal, sleep in the mud and die of gangrene.”

War is a tawdry, grotesque enterprise all too often cloaked in patriotic garb – an effort as old as it is predictable.  History – and the history of war – is contested terrain. One of the oldest clich├ęs in the book is that history is written by the victors.  So Ottawa’s $18 million effort entails selling the War of 1812 as a birth-of-a-nation story. But it might also be described as a death of a nation….or many nations.

That’s because a truly conclusive outcome was that First Nations on both sides of the border between the American republic and the outpost of empire that was Upper Canada were the true losers in the war. The British Empire, a ruthless and cynical an enterprise as ever existed, double-crossed their crucial allies. Although Tecumseh is celebrated as a hero, a harsh fact remains. After 1814, with the Treaty of Ghent in which the British betrayed the native claims, First Nations came to be treated as “Wards of the State.” Their dream of a native-controlled polity at the heart of North America – which the British had tentatively supported, was gone.

This reality is not, of course, part of the Official Story.

One group of winners in the war was Upper Canada’s arch-reactionary Family Compact. If we want to celebrate history, why not focus on Bishop John Strachan and the rest of the men whose malignant rule congealed in the aftermath of the Treaty of Ghent? These politicians were oligarchs to the core.  Strachan certainly didn’t suffer from any problems with self-esteem, writing his autobiography at the age of twenty-one. And the Anglican prelate  was  most concerned that the virus of democracy would creep north, contaminating the yeomen farmers of Upper Canada with subversive notions that he called “licentious liberty.”

Like the government of Stephen Harper, Bishop Strachan had a fierce loyalty to the monarchy. And, like the Harperites, he had his own version of the War of 1812 and its history that he zealously put about. According to Strachan, it was the sturdy colonial militia – those same yeomen farmers -- who saved us from the Americans. This “militia myth,” widely rubbished by historians, was nevertheless deployed by the powerful cleric in an attempt to turn the brutal little war into a noble, nation-building enterprise. Strachan did his best to downplay the highly trained British regulars and their aboriginal guerilla allies who did so much to hold off the Americans.

Historical memory -- again, contested terrain.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Do we polarize militarism and pacifism?

by Marlene Epp 
I'm looking forward to touring 1812 CO (conscientious objector) sites with Jonathan Seiling and the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario on June 16.

I've just finished reading a novel titled The Absolutist by Irish writer John Boyne which has caused me to think about the gray areas between militarism and pacifism. The novel is about young -- far too young -- men who are soldiers on the European battlefront of the First World War. As the plot unfolds, what gradually emerges is the different motives that drew these young men to join up and also their varying responses to the horrors of hand-to-hand combat that characterized that war.

The centre of the story is the 'coming out' of a soldier as a conscientious objector and the questioning of others about the ethics of war. And also the 'coming out' of another soldier as gay and the uncertainty about the sexual orientation of another. Both of these identity issues reveal that pacifism and sexuality are most often situated on a continuum and only a few experience these as black and white issues.

I wonder if peace church Mennonites, myself included, are often too quick to polarize militarism and pacifism. Were there soldiers fighting in the war of 1812 who felt burdened to speak against the war? And were there Mennonites who questioned the CO position during that conflict?


Thursday 7 June 2012

Are peacemakers called to CREATE conflict?

Stouffville has made national news in the past few weeks, as the local peace churches have strongly opposed plans to celebrate the War of 1812. (lots of coverage by CBC's As it Happens)

Watching from afar, I've been admiring this bold witness to peace my brothers and sisters are making, especially with the whole country watching.

It's a little tempting to use the Stouffville actions as a model for faithful witness today, given the huge attention given to this community. These are the bold peacemakers for Christ!

Yet, I know there have been many other faithful witnesses to peace in our history, and yes, today as well.

An equally faithful group of peace witnesses have been raising questions about how the War of 1812 is celebrated down in Niagara. Their commitment has led to inspiring engagements like this blog, and an 1812 bike tour to conscientious objector sites.

For the most part, the Niagara peace churches have not made the news. Stouffville peace churches have. The difference?


The Niagara churches have tried to offer an alternative voice to the 1812 conversation in Niagara. I think they've done that rather well.

The Stouffville churches, on the other hand, directly opposed specific plans by specific people. Conflict created. And where there's conflict, there's media.

This is not to suggest that we peacemakers should constantly seek out the attention of the media.

But the media is an important tool in grassroots peacemaking and forming public opinion. More people talking about war, militarism and peace can only be a good thing.

Maybe it's time the peace churches start picking more fights in order to create peace???

Saturday 5 May 2012

Peace in the news!

Take a look at this Globe and Mail article which talks about peace and commemoration of the war of 1812:
"Bicentennial Military events an affront to Stouffville, Ont's pacifist roots".


Friday 4 May 2012

A river runs through it

by Carol Penner

Look at the land here…does the land on one side look any different than the land on the other side?  It’s a picture taken from Queenston Heights…the land on the right is the United States, the land on the left is Canada.

I’ve been reading a book about the Battle of Queenston Heights, and it says that the communities on either side of the river were very connected socially.  For a long time the only portage around Niagara Falls was on the American side; everyone used it.  People in Youngstown on one side of the river and Newark on the other had parties and were constantly going back and forth.

Of course the declaration of war in 1812 changed all that. For the non-resistant Christians, they refused to buy into the declaration of war…no one was their enemy.  They had friends on both sides of the border, and tried to treat everyone the same.

But how good have churches been at keeping up those connections? It used to be that Mennonites had strong connections with Mennonite churches on the other side of the river.  But gradually over time, we too have divided into national churches, rather than cross-national church bodies. I know and have visited churches all over Ontario but I find that I know almost nothing of my Mennonite neighbours in New York State.

While we never believed in enemies, how has the division between countries influenced how we work as a church?

Wednesday 18 April 2012

An interesting article

Check out this interesting article by Mags Story at Christianweek.org, entitled "Christians questioned war response in 1812, too".

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Preaching helped fuel war of 1812

by John Longhurst
When it comes to war, religion is often one of the first to enlist -- or be conscripted. That was certainly true 200 years ago, during the War of 1812.

That war, which ended with both sides claiming victory, will be the focus of many commemorations, conferences, re-enactments and other events during this, its 200th anniversary.
As a history buff -- and as someone who grew up near some of the old battlefields in the Niagara region -- I've read a lot about the origins, strategies, battles, heroes and outcomes of that conflict. But I can't recall ever hearing anything about the role of religion during the war. What impact did it have?
A big one, as it turns out, especially in the U.S.