I’ve been trying to wait for the official start of 2012 before mentioning the War of 1812’s 200th birthday, but the Harper government has jumped the gun and I can’t help wondering why. It’s not as though they do things spontaneously, without calculating the politics involved. So last week, Heritage Minister James Moore laid out some of their plans for marking that war, along with the reasons: chiefly, that it “led to 200 years of peace.” Ah, there you go.

The War of 1812 is a symbolic minefield for Canada-U.S. relations. From our side, they invaded, with expectations of being welcomed and perhaps staying. Thomas Jefferson said it would be “a mere matter of marching,” like U.S. officials before they invaded Iraq. From their POV, it involved the last assaults on U.S. soil — including burning Washington to the ground — until 9/11. That image won’t engender warm and fuzzy feelings. Recently they created Buy American rules that irk Canadians who thought we had free trade. That doesn’t sound friendly either. The relationship is always an ongoing minefield.

So the Harper people try to reframe 1812 as part of a march toward sheer harmony with the U.S. Why? Because the Harper transformation of our foreign policy — a serious project — is, in a word, imperialist. Don’t jerk that knee. I mean it in a descriptive, not judgmental, way. It means denying that Canada could ever stake out an independent space in world affairs, from which it could do good through roles like mediation and peacekeeping. Instead, we must align with the mightiest global powers (which used to be called empires) and play a subsidiary role in their ventures, like occupying Afghanistan or bombing in Libya. So the military gets rebuilt, under Harper, to make war, not keep peace; and the old terminology, like Royal, as in navy, is back. It sounds kooky but it makes a point.

There’s nothing new in this. In fact it’s old. It was part of mainstream Canadian thinking from Confederation in 1867 till World War One. It was literally known as Canadian imperialism: the idea that Canadians could proudly do for the British Empire what the increasingly worn out Brits couldn’t do for themselves. So Canada sent soldiers to fight in the Boer War in 1899. More Canadians died there than have so far in Afghanistan. They were celebrated at home, much like the Highway of Heroes. Our prime ministers proudly proclaimed, “Ready, aye, ready,” whenever Britain called.

Then, for most of the 20th century, Canada experimented with a more independent foreign policy. Take 1956: Liberal foreign affairs minister Lester Pearson opposed a U.K.-French attack on Egypt and was central in setting up the first UN peacekeeping force there. He rejected, he said, the role of “colonial chore boy running around shouting ‘Ready, aye, ready.’ ” It’s true, Canadian policy may have simply been switching empires at an apt moment, from the U.K. to the U.S. But there were at least gestures toward an autonomous role; and Canadians generally seemed to approve. As late as 2003, the Chrétien government declined to join the U.S. war on Iraq in any serious way.

Stephen Harper on the other hand is an imperial chore boy for all seasons. His foreign policy is a rehash and mishmash of U.K. and U.S. imperial elements — even his reframing of the War of 1812 is marketed by his government in a package along with the diamond (or whatever) jubilee of the Queen.

He isn’t alone; imperialism has come back into intellectual fashion. U.K. historian Niall Ferguson said we should all “welcome the new” — i.e., American, “imperialism” which will be “not very different” from the old, British version. Michael Ignatieff in his Harvard-New York Times phase, wrote similarly in praise of “empire lite.”

But this was World Leaders Week at the UN. Canada merely parroted U.S. policy or, on issues like Palestinian statehood, parroted it in advance. No one listens. They listen to Brazil, which used to be a U.S. lapdog. We couldn’t even get a seat on the Security Council; it used to be automatic. We have no voice now, not even in a half-assed Lester Pearson way. Exactly what is the point of being a country, if you don’t have your own voice?

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.