Artful Blogger

THE ARTFUL BLOGGER: Mess with us and we’ll burn the White House — a look at the War Museum’s 1812 exhibit

By Paul Gessell

The Officer's Coatee of Major General Sir Isaac Brock. On the chest of the coat you can see the hole left by the American musket ball that killed him.

If you want to get a taste of the future, visit the War of 1812 exhibition at the Canadian War Museum.

There you will discover how Canadians of English, French, and Aboriginal ancestry united to repel American invasions. And just to rub salt into American wounds, there is even a piece of charred timber, small enough to rest in the palm of your hand, that came from the White House in Washington that “we” burned to the ground in 1814.

Well, actually, it was the British who torched the presidential home. But the divisions between British and Canadian were kind of fuzzy back then. So, when it is convenient, we claim “Canadians” did the deed. If memory serves me, I recall Brian Mulroney, during a prime ministerial visit to Washington in 1988, joked to an American audience about Canadians sacking the White House.

So, what’s this all got to do with the future?

Well, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has made a concerted effort to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and turn it into an anniversary of the day Canadians saved themselves from becoming American.

In two years time, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War, which is often credited with turning Canada into a real country because of the valiant way our soldiers fought the enemy in Europe.

And then in 2017, we will mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the date most of us thought was the birth of Canada.

So many birthdays. So many parties. So many exhibitions.

Will we all become more patriotic? I doubt it. All the hype over the Centennial of Confederation in 1967 and the glories of Expo ’67 are likely the last, best gasp of Canadian nationalism we shall see for a long while. Since then, we’ve all become far too cynical and globalized to party hard for Canada. That’s a pity.

The 1812 exhibition at the War Museum is divided into four parts, one each for the British, American, Canadian, and Aboriginal perspective. It’s a clever arrangement, seeing as how each ethnic group saw the war in very different ways. For the Americans, it was like a second War of Independence from Britain. For the British, it was a sideshow to Napoleonic Wars in Europe. For Canadians, it was survival as a distinct political entity. For Aboriginal groups, it was a fight for freedom from the Americans.

So, who won and who lost? Historians are divided.

But do go and enjoy the artifacts, including the red tunic worn by the “Hero of Upper Canada,” Sir Isaac Brock during the Battle of Queenston Heights. Brock was mortally wounded in the battle Oct. 13, 1812. You can see the bullet hole in the garment.

And there is also a carved wooden lion, slightly smaller than life-sized. This symbol of British power was carried off by the Americans after they torched the legislative assembly of Upper Canada in York (now Toronto) on April 27, 1813.

The lion normally rests at the United States Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland. Don’t you think it’s time the Americans returned the lion for good?

The exhibition 1812 officially opens today, June 13, and at the Canadian War Museum and continues until Jan. 6, 2013. For more information, see www.warmuseum.ca.