The War of 1812 – like all wars – was not all glory and righteousness. Not even mostly glory and righteousness.
It’s May 2012. In most of Canada, the birds are chirping, spring flowers are in bloom, and people across the country are gearing up to crack out the grills in anticipation of a lovely summer. Oh yes, and it’s approaching 200 years to the day since the United States ‘declared war on Britain and all its dominions’ and thus engaged what is now Canada in the War of 1812. Most Canadians can be forgiven for not knowing much about it, for not being able to name the combatants, and/or for not caring. It has, after all, been 200 years; hence, the federal government’s campaign to make us remember it as a ‘defining chapter in our history’.
And it was a defining moment. It marked the first time that self-identified ‘Canadians’ resisted a patriotic war! War resistance – the conscious refusal – for moral, religious, ethical, or political reasons – to fight for one side or the other, is a neglected part of every armed conflict of post-contact North America, and indeed of the modern world. In 1812, Mennonites, Quakers, and other religious pacifists were significant minorities in communities throughout the Lake Erie region of southern Ontario. Historian Jonathan Seiling reports, “It is widely recognized that many Upper Canadians did not demonstrate utmost loyalty toward the British Crown on the eve of the war, or even during the war. Some settlers objected to the war in communities on both sides of the border, whether on pragmatic grounds, or due to “disaffection” and political dissent. Others refused to participate on principle…” The British authorities in Upper Canada by and large understood this and so levied a tax on them in lieu of combat service, and routinely dragooned them as teamsters for the baggage trains.
Donald G. Anger confirms as much, citing a local example from the Sugarloaf settlement in Niagara district. “These were people of strong faith, who did not believe in taking up arms against their fellow man [sic] and usually quietly accept the consequences.” Or not so quietly in some cases, as one report indicated a Quaker in what is today Kitchener-Waterloo area took his wagon apart down to its wood and nails so as to avoid having to use it to aid the militia. Others went to jail for refusing to pay the pacifist levy, and loudly declaimed against the war all the way! Anger notes of the Quakers in Sugarloaf “During the War of 1812, all of these men [ed. – the Quaker heads-of-households who would be eligible for militia service] would remain true to their Quaker principles, would decline to pick up arms, and most would opt not to pay the required fine and instead accept the consequences.” Me thinks Anger is being unnecessarily coy :)
Resistance was not exclusive to religious communities either. Enthusiasm for militia service was mixed at best, with settlers on both sides of the conflict refusing call-ups as often as not. American general George McClure lamented at one such failed attempt to rouse the local militia against the British taking of Fort Niagara: “Most were more interested in taking care of their families and property by carrying them into the interior, than helping us to fight.” Today, amidst the variety of commemorative actions, Ontario historians have created http://tecumsehlieshere.org/, an interactive augmented reality game that educates the players on all aspects of the war, as well as training them in the tools of historical research (more details). I know what I am doing this summer!
Resistance to war has long been a feature of modern conflict. Canadian society was done a great service by the huge influx of American draft resisters during America’s war in Vietnam. Over 50 000 Americans came across during the 1960s and 1970s, taking advantage of laxer Canadian immigration policies and a Canadian political environment that was similarly in flux – Trudeau’s government ended the covert discrimination against US draft resisters only after it was nationally exposed by five York University students who posed as American draft-card burners and recorded their experiences at the border. Many of those Americans went on to lives in the arts, law, and other endeavours, and they continue to be eternally grateful for being here.
Before that, the resistance movements in France and Italy during the Second World War are part of our history. Resistance in these cases was by no means pacifist however. In Italy, the resistance was explicitly anti-Fascisti and anti-Nazi, and involved serious deployment of modern weaponry, and the sorts of difficult decisions and compromising on one’s ideals that often accompanies politics. Resistance too took place in even the darkest places, where prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau organized an uprising that involved smuggling gun powder in from a local factory in tablespoon-sized amounts for weeks.
Today, resistance continues, both to historic wars and current ones. In Stouffville Ontario, the local Mennonite congregation petitioned the town council to oppose the federal government’s plans for a war commemoration while ActiveHistory.ca raises the question “What’s wrong with celebrating the War of 1812?” The writers end with a quotation from the legendary Pierre Burton, writing in reference to 1812: “Political and military leaders constantly used the clichés of warfare to justify bloodshed and rampage. Words like honour…liberty…independence…freedom were dragged out to rally the troops, most of whom, struggling to save their skins, knew them to be empty.” Canadians legacy of resistance to wars continues into this century, with massive national protests in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq – protests that prompted Prime Minister Jean Chretien to renounce Canadian military involvement in that invasion. Today, dozens or hundreds of American war veterans seek refuge here, hoping to find evidence of these same threads of peace.
The Deserter's Tale : the story of an ordinary soldier who walked away from the war in Iraq (Key, Joshua with Lawrence Hill, 2007)
956.70443 KEY KEY - - Society and Recreation, 3rd fl, NYCL
Don't Give Up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812 (Hickey, Donald R., 2006)
971.034 HIC - Canadiana, 6th fl, NYCL
Fighting Back, a memoir of Jewish Resistance in World War II (Werner, Harold, 1992)
940.531809 W - Society and Recreation, 3rd fl, NYCL
The New Exiles, American War Resisters in Canada (Williams, Roger N., 1971)
325.2730971 W - Canadiana, 6th fl, NYCL
Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada (Hagan, John, 2001)
959.70438 HAG - Society and Recreation, 3rd fl, NYCL
The Other Italy, the Italian Resistance in World War II (Wilhelm, Maria, 1988)
940.5345 W - Society and Recreation, 3rd fl, NYCL
'Scruples of Conscience' the War of 1812 in the Sugarloaf Settlement (Anger, Donald G., 2008)
971.33802 ANG - Canadiana, 6th fl, NYCL
Soldiers in revolt : GI resistance during the Vietnam War (Cortright, David, 2005)
959.70433 COR - Society and Recreation, 3rd fl, NYCL
War with No End (Bennis, Phyllis et al., 2007)
958.1047 WAR - Society and Recreation, 3rd fl, NYCL