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Why we can't trust Stephen Harper's history of the War of 1812

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Over the next few years, the Harper government will spend tens of millions of dollars celebrating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. They've even developed an iPhone app, which they claim will help young people increase their "awareness of Canada's origins and the sources of our freedom and democracy."

The whole thing is in fact an exercise in politics, as much about 2012 as 1812. It's part of the relentless -- often subtle, sometimes in your face -- militarist course of the Harper government. While I'm not expert enough to declare Harper's history of 1812 an outright whitewash, after reading the government's website for the commemoration it's easy enough to see where key elements of the war are omitted or soft-pedalled.

For comparison, I consulted the late Pierre Berton's book The Invasion of Canada. Berton's summary of the War of 1812 is quite different than the one presented by the Harper government. First of all, Berton notes that on the Canadian side, "democracy was a wicked word and the army was run autocratically by British professionals."

As it happens, the origin of democracy and freedom in Canada was of course not the War of 1812, nor the much bloodier slaughter of WWI a century later, as is some times preposterously implied through insidious official Remembrance Day speeches. Quite the opposite. An honest reading of history reveals that what actual democracy and freedom there is results from a series of protracted struggles against Canada's establishment.

Berton explains that there is "little evidence to support" the "common cant" about the War of 1812 "that the diverse population of Upper Canada… closed ranks to defeat the enemy." The "myth of a people's war" was propagated over the years by the "pro-British ruling elite." I encourage everyone to read the full book for themselves; Berton paints a compelling picture of a war that was both unnecessary and unwanted.

On the American side, Berton makes it clear that the invasion of Canada was a foolish, unpopular blunder egged on by a minority of war hawks which ultimately doomed their "manifest destiny" to conquer northern North America. (Harper might do well to reflect on these lessons of 1812, given his own support for recent ill-advised U.S. invasions, and his prominent contributions to the ongoing sabre rattling and threats against Iran.)

What concerns me most about the Harper government's telling of the War of 1812 is that they will misrepresent the result of the conflict for the First Nations that allied with the British against the United States. The prime minister's letter of introduction on the government website refers to aboriginal peoples who united with others to "save Canada." But one crucial objective of the Native warriors who allied with the British -- under Shawnee leader Tecumseh and others -- was to safeguard an independent Native confederacy. As a result of American aggression and British betrayal, this dream died with Tecumseh in 1813.

Jim Hill, manager of heritage operations with the Niagara Parks Commission, recently explained, "I think it's generally agreed that it's the First Nations people of North America who lose the War of 1812."

But who can trust the Harper government to convey this accurately, given that the prime minister once bizarrely asserted Canada has "no history" of colonialism? And who can trust this government to fairly explain past betrayals of First Nations, given the present injustices they are actively inflicting or allowing to fester?

Under Harper, Canada was one of only four countries that voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (before finally, years later, begrudgingly agreeing to sign on). This government's shameful stance at the UN is reflected here at home; Ottawa is simultaneously neglectful and belligerent, while urging on a number of industrial developments in violation of First Nations' right to free, prior and informed consent.

To take just a few recent examples:

-  The Harper government has been so flagrantly unserious about hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women across the country that the UN has stepped up to conduct an inquiry.

-  When faced with a public outcry over appalling housing and health conditions in Attawapiskat, the government responded by blaming the victims and putting the community under third-party management. Harper himself blithely refused to visit the site of the humanitarian disaster.  

-  In the West, the government has supported the push for the reckless expansion of tar sands pipelines across unceded First Nations land in B.C.

We would have to go on and on to fully document Ottawa's recent attacks on First Nations' land and rights -- alas, there's no app for that.

This year's hype about a war fought 200 years ago is in part designed to reinforce a false image of consensus in Canada today. In this way Harper's War of 1812 obscures the reality of Harper's political and resource wars of 2012.

It's too bad we can't put the commemoration of the War of 1812 under third-party management -- Harper's crew can't be trusted to tell this story. And the money saved could pay for quite a few houses in Attawapiskat.

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