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.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

CO experience foreign to my generation

Can historical remembering bring about a new witness to peace?

I think so. But it has to move us forward in our witness as historic peace churches. Unfortunately, I think we'd rather relive the same old story.

As a twenty-something born and raised in Canada, I have absolutely no experience of what it means to be faced with the decision to engage in warfare.

To be honest, I have hard time imagining that ever happening in my lifetime (though I suppose my forebears before me must have thought the same).

So reflecting on past Conscientious Objectors' experience does little to motivate me to a life of peace witness today. And I'm not alone.

One young adult put it this way, in the Brethren in Christ publication Shalom:
“I suspect that most young people are really not interested in talking about what happened decades ago in a world we no longer inhabit…. [They] are a little disgusted with boomer-ism. Almost everything the ‘hippie generation’ tried to do has been unsatisfying, and brought on a world that younger people will have to live in and clean up. So, hearing stories about being a C.O. [conscientious objector] is not productive.”
To be sure, the 1812 CO experience goes well beyond the hippie generation, yet it is one event in a long history of peace churches saying NO to war, yet failing to provide a captivating YES alternative.

The most popular stories told and retold in peace church mythology are those who refused to give up their right to refrain from warfare. These are inspiring stories of courage, no doubt. I look forward to reading more on this blog.

But where are the stories of peacemakers courageously creating peace?

With little likelihood of being asked to serve in war today, I need stories that provide me a captivating YES for why we choose peace over violence. Whether abstaining from war is morally superior isn't enough. I also need to see what can happen when people band together in the way of peace. You know, glimpses of the peaceful kingdom of God.

Without them, our critics are right. We pacifists reap the benefits of those who fight for freedom on our behalf, while celebrating the heroes of bygone eras.

Monday, 27 February 2012


A new documentary about the ravages of the War of 1812 in south-western Ontario is being developed. It will include the 1813 battle at Moraviantown (near Chatham), where so many Mennonites and Brethren in Christ suffered great losses. They had been helping with the retreat of supplies and refugees (technically: internally displaced persons) from the fortified locations near Detroit..

This is a key element of my ongoing research, in which I'm trying to determine the nature and extent of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ involvement in this transport operation. The film looks at the ugly devastation of war and also the inglorious acts of treason that were committed by many Canadian residents at that time, who seemed prepared to see victory go to the Americans.

By the way, they're still looking for actors, horses and wagons. Preferably, although not necessarily, the actors might also be horse-riding and wagoneering Mennonites and Brethren in Christ!?

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Mennonites and Six Nations

The topic of Mennonites and Six Nations is not a new one. It's an uncomfortable one in some ways. Mennonites are implicated in the broken relationships that developed during the period following the early 1800s migration to the Waterloo region in particular.

To my knowledge there has been little systematic study of the interactions and relationships between various First Nations groups and Mennonites during the War of 1812. What I've found in my research indicates that some Mennonites had startlingly amicable relations with First Nations while some others were thornier. There are some fantastic tales and some embarrassing ones, for those us of who identify with Mennonite heritage and are prepared to recognize the benefits we derived from an unequal relationship between our ancestors and First Nations.

At the Grand River Heritage workshop (I referred to in a previous blog) the key highlight for me was Rick Hill, a First Nations historian. He spoke of a message of peace and socio-political separatism from the imperial societies in which First Nations lived.

Cutting Edge Heritage!

Last Friday (Feb 17) I participated as a speaker at the Grand River Heritage Workshop, an annual event focusing on some aspect of – believe it or not – the heritage of the Grand River! The War of 1812 was the focus and I was extremely under-aged for this particular event, unlike the other heritage events I've know that were teeming with hipsters. I was surprised I didn't get carded.

To my surprise, however, it was CUTTING EDGE. Seriously. It wasn't a splash of Loyalist-leaning propaganda, awash with valiant war memories, or an undercurrent of nostalgia for a supposedly buff military, but it was largely geared toward acknowledging the pain and devastation of war. It acknowledged that loyalty was not something taken for granted. It should not have been a surprise to me since the Grand River watershed saw little of war's glory.

[photo of c.1790s cabin of Daniel and Elizabeth (Miller) Hoover near Rainham]

The theme was 'Divided Loyalties' and my presentation looked primarily at Mennonites and Brethren in Christ (very few Quakers lived within the watershed at that time). It was natural for me to deal with the theme of divided loyalties because Mennonites and Brethren seemed in many cases to have been all too ready to be of service to whichever side of the war came knocking.

Monday, 20 February 2012

War of 1812: Stupid? Maybe. Important? Yes.

by Carol Penner
I’ve borrowed my title from an article in the Globe and Mail by Jeremy Diamond and Davida Aronovitch (20/02/12). The article uses recent polls to contrast the attitudes in the United States and Canada about war, history and patriotism. The authors speak disparagingly about celebrating a brutal conflict. Instead they ask for an investigation into a historical event: what did it mean?

As a Mennonite Christian, I resonate with this. I’ve been very uncomfortable with any mention of celebration about the War of 1812, and since I live in Niagara, I’ve seen that word a lot in the past months. Two hundred years may sanitize the battlefields for most people, but the cost in human suffering was real on both sides. 
I hope that the coming years will allow us to look at the significance of not just this war, but all wars. “War with the United States” rings so falsely now, since we are major allies; who knows whether in 200 years “War with Afghanistan” might also ring falsely. 

Monday, 16 January 2012

The bicentennial year is here!!!

by Jonathan Seiling
So many people have been undertaking projects and preparations leading up to this year so let the fanfare begin....

Currently there are web pages on the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario website on this topic.  They commemorate experience of the historic peace churches in Upper Canada, including Quakers, Brethren in Christ and Mennonites (otherwise known historically as the "Society of Friends", the "Tunkers" and "Menonists" in case you're looking for some oddly-spelled proper nouns for your next Scrabble match that accepts standard English words not in the dictionary!)

Visit the site and you’ll find: 1) an events calendar; 2) the texts and some photos of historic markers in Niagara (with translations into French); 3) a link back to this blog! 4) other materials to be added soon.

The historic markers can be visited in reality and, thanks to the MCCO website, they can be visited in virtual reality.

A forum in war-full times

by Carol Penner
Two hundred years ago, in 1812, groups of Christians in the Niagara Peninsula and other parts of Upper Canada, refused to participate in the hostilities between the British and the Americans. These Christians, from three denominations, (now known as) the Quakers, the Brethren in Christ, and the Mennonites, all sought conscientious objector status from the government. They had been promised this option when they first arrived in Canada as immigrants.

What was it like to be peaceful in a world at war? What did that position cost them, in terms of their standing in the community? Were there dissenting voices even among these peace churches? How did being peaceful Christians in war-full times play out in the lives of women and men of that time? 

As Canada and the United States begin to commemorate the War of 1812, how do we as modern-day peacemakers respond? How are our beliefs the same or different?  What is our relationship to our governments in this current war-full time? There are so many questions: we hope this blog will be a place of lively discussion and dialogue.