Last fall, the unveiling of a new monument in Toronto caused a stir among American history revisionists.
Vancouver artist Douglas Coupland's tribute to the war of 1812 which depicts a giant British toy soldier of the Newfoundland Regiment towering over a toppled American member of the 16th Infantry Regiment, provoked the Manager of the Sakets Harbor, New York, Historic Site to comment that: "Historical or aesthetic interpretation must be made by the viewer." - Essentially that the outcome of the "War of 1812" is in the eye of the beholder.
I have been reminded of the moment over the decision by the National Battlefields' Commission to axe its own plans to re-create the "Battle of the Plains of Abraham" in honour of its 250th Anniversary this summer. As the controversy erupted over the past couple of weeks, in large measure fueled by ultra-separatist elements in Quebec, Federal politicians of every stripe declined to get involved in the debate...except, and of course, members of the "Bloc Quebecois" who seized the opportunity to fan the flames of federal propaganda.
As the Battlefields Commission's chair, Andre Juneau, testified yesterday: Without support from Federal politicians, and once physical threats of violence started flying from opponents, there was little choice but to cancel the event.
The controversy may very well be just a dress rehearsal for the load which will hit the fan once plans get underway to mark the 200th of the War of 1812 in a couple of years.
There is a growing school of academics and historians in the United-States who advance the belief that the Americans somehow, someway won that war. That is precisely the point artist Coupland was addressing with his Toronto monument. A recent episode of "History Detectives" on America's public television broadcaster PBS, concluded of the War of 1812 that: "Although it was not a conclusive victory; it established America as an independent sovereign entity."
At the genesis of the argument is the belief by American historians that the War of 1812 signaled the real conclusion of their quarrel for Independence against Britain which they'd launched under General Washington in the 1780's. - Never mind that in reality that issue was settled in 1786 when the 13 colonies formed a Union. It was after all the Americans, under President James Madison, who declared war on the British North American colonies in 1812.
Lest I digress: At just over five feet, Madison is the shortest ever American President, and perhaps suffered from a complex now named in honour of his contemporary - Napoleon.
In a recent editorial over the Plains of Abraham controversy in Quebec City, the "National Post" noted how much and how frequently the Americans like to re-create their own historic military encounters, including an annual celebrated event on the killing fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Once activities begin to rev-up to the commemorations marking the War of 1812, our National Battlefields Commission may have to walk a non-offensive tightrope of historic proportions.
Any attempt to accommodate American revisionist theories would be a monumental stretch of the facts in any recreation attempts at the Battles of Crysler Farm and Queenston Heights; or in the August 24, 1814 sacking of Washington and burning of the White House.
Of this most recent episode in Quebec City, Canwest columnist Don Martin says today..."this sorry episode proves there are some moments in Canada's past that should be spared the live-action, re-enactment treatment, even when carefully and factually preserved in the history books."
Martin is probably right. Though when it comes to the War of 1812 it seems some people, including scholars, are already making attempts to revise the history books themselves....and, they didn't just start with Johnny Horton's 1959 recording of the song: "The Battle of New Orleans" of January 8, 1815.