Bicentennial of the Declaration of the War of 1812
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Saturday, June 16, 2012
Thank you for your warm welcome. It is a pleasure to be here to commemorate this important chapter in our history.
The Battle of Queenston Heights has been described as both a victory and a tragedy for the British, Canadian and First Nations peoples who fought together against the Americans—and in fact, this can be said of the War of 1812 in its entirety.
It was a tragedy because war, lest we forget, means we have failed to achieve our ends peacefully. The Niagara region and other parts of Canada were turned into battlefields, and the suffering of soldiers and ordinary people was starkly real.
However, the Battle of Queenston Heights and the War of 1812 also represent important victories for Canada—and, ultimately, for our relationship with the United States.
Today, we are fortunate to share the world’s longest undefended border, where our disputes are settled through diplomacy, rather than war. But two centuries ago, our situation was very different.
In those days, neither the British, who controlled Canada, nor the Americans to the south thought coexistence in North America was possible.
Fortunately, they were both wrong, and the War of 1812 was a difficult but important step in learning to live together on this continent.
In this country, the war gave Canadians a sense of shared experiences and relationships, opening up possibilities for Confederation half-a-century later.
It also demonstrated that we can achieve more by working together.
The Battle of Queenston Heights provides a vivid illustration of the power of collaboration. In the predawn of October 13, 1812, an American force crossed the Niagara River to attack the British at the village of Queenston. Despite the Americans’ initial success and the subsequent loss of Major-General Isaac Brock, the defenders soon united to repel the invaders.
Who comprised the forces that won the Battle of Queenston Heights? They were a cross-section of early Canadians, including British soldiers and First Nations warriors, local volunteer militias and freed slaves.
In other battles, French-speaking militias joined the fight to fend off the American forces.
In their diversity, the Canadians who united for the War of 1812 foreshadowed our multicultural society of today.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of unity—and of its opposite—throughout the war. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor has written, there were in fact four “overlapping dimensions” to the War of 1812.
- Loyalists versus Americans for control of Upper Canada;
- Federalists versus Republicans within the United States;
- Irish republicans continuing their rebellion against Britain in Canada; and
- Native peoples divided in their allegiances.
At the heart of this North American “civil” war, as Taylor calls it, there was a great paradox that provides us with an important and timeless lesson.
The paradox is that it was in many ways our similarities, rather than our differences, that led to war.
“The republic and the empire competed for the allegiance of peoples in North America—native, settler and immigrant. Americans and Britons spoke the same language and conducted more trade with one another than with other nations, but their overlapping migrations and commerce generated the friction of competition.”
As we know, the failure to resolve this competition peacefully led to a costly and damaging war. And once war had broken out, it was won through the co-operation of those who came together to fight for Canada.
To this day, the War of 1812 is instructive in its complexity. As governor general and commander-in-chief of Canada, I encourage all Canadians to learn more about this episode in our history and its important consequences.
I also want to thank those of you who have come together in this bicentennial year to commemorate the Battle of Queenston Heights and the War of 1812. An accurate understanding of our history is essential to building a smarter, more caring Canada.