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“It's a war created by illusions,”
March 11, 2012 8:47 AM   Subscribe

The myth of 1812: How Canadians see the war we want to see. [Globe and Mail]
posted by Fizz (68 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm surprised America isn't planning more to celebrate this war. It seems like the one thing we do well.
posted by Renoroc at 9:02 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I live in Fort Erie, ON Canada and the city is planning for a very large turnout. Will be good for tourism and local economy.
posted by Fizz at 9:08 AM on March 11, 2012


The comment about most Americans only knowing about the White House burning and the Battle of New Orleans (you could also throw in the origins of the lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner" for the hat trick) is pretty much spot-on. It's interesting to read about it being characterized as a civil war of sorts; like most things Canadian versus most things American, it was a lot more mellow than the Civil War that Americans are familiar with.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:19 AM on March 11, 2012


I'm surprised America isn't planning more to celebrate this war. It seems like the one thing we do well.

We do celebrate war well! Except, the 100 anniversary of this war just happens to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Which, incidentally, is having a lot more money and effort thrown at it from the states of the losing side than the winning side.
posted by Atreides at 9:21 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Related.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:22 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


They have joined forces in Guelph, roughly equidistant from the major Canadian battlefields, for a consciousness-raising symposium on the war – a gathering made far less academic by the bustling market where 1812 enthusiasts stock up on sabres, cartridge boxes, canvas tents, Coalport coffee cups, quill pens and anything else they will need to refight the war
come at us, bro
posted by Flunkie at 9:28 AM on March 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I thought it was interesting to learn that there are 1812 reenactors in Canada like there are Civil War reenactors here in the US. That had never occurred to me.
posted by hippybear at 9:28 AM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


You know, there are also reenactors for World War Two, who stage the Battle of the Bulge in Ohio or someplace in the middle of the country.
posted by Atreides at 9:33 AM on March 11, 2012


This essay in The Walrus is also worth reading:

That Time We Beat the Americans: A misunderstood moment, now 200 years old, defines us as Canadians. A citizens’ guide to the War of 1812.
posted by Fizz at 9:35 AM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Back in high school, I attended a reenactment of the American capture of Fort York. The major issue was the overabundance of British uniforms (in the neighborhood of 100) and the dearth of Americans (around 10). Nevertheless, Americans still had to capture Fort York. And so, in a very Hollywood moment, a band of 10 American supermen marched across the field of battle, mowing down hapless redcoats despite being outnumbered and outshot by a factor of ten to one. A harsh indictment of Her Majesty's marksman training program.
posted by Behemoth at 9:42 AM on March 11, 2012 [20 favorites]


Looking from England, it's odd to see that this war is part of a founding myth. It doesn't really register in historical memory here.
posted by Jehan at 9:42 AM on March 11, 2012


They have joined forces in Guelph, roughly equidistant from the major Canadian battlefields, for a consciousness-raising symposium on the war – a gathering made far less academic by the bustling market where 1812 enthusiasts stock up on sabres, cartridge boxes, canvas tents, Coalport coffee cups, quill pens and anything else they will need to refight the war

How convenient that there are exactly 1,812 enthusiasts.
posted by cmoj at 9:59 AM on March 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


A distant relative of mine, Joseph G. Chambers, invented a number of the first repeating firearms for the US Navy around 1812-1814, including a repeating fintlock pistol, repeating musket, and a multi-barrel, timed, 30-round repeating swivel gun for use on ships. None of the originals have survived, but here is a picture of a pistol made several years later based on his patented design. Although sent to the Great Lakes for 'testing' on the British forces, they did not see much combat at all, and his design didn't catch on. There are some reports of his swivel guns being used on the USS Constitution around that time, but I'm still looking into that.
posted by chambers at 10:11 AM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Looking from England, it's odd to see that this war is part of a founding myth. It doesn't really register in historical memory here.

It doesn't really register much in Canada either, to be honest. Unless people have a United Empire Loyalist somewhere in their lineage, a mostly inconsequential war that happened 200 years ago means nothing to them. And even those of us who are descended from UAE's mostly just know about the burning of the White House, military goats in Kingston, and whatever crumbs remain from grade 5 social studies. (Plains of Abraham? Is that a thing?)

The same is true of 99% of Canadian history. Most Canadians know far more -- and care far more -- about American history than our own. Ours isn't drilled into us constantly from all angles like theirs is.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:17 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really think the difference in approaches comes down to the difference between Obama and Harper.

Also, Laura Secord was a war hero? I only knew about the candy. Turns out she was also a hottie from history.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:20 AM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh yeah!
posted by Sys Rq at 10:23 AM on March 11, 2012


Far from identifying Canadians as “beautiful losers,” the War of 1812 casts us as rather nasty fighters with a vengeful streak.

I keep saying this: we must fear the arsonists from the north! When riled, they are very fierce. And fond of torches.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:27 AM on March 11, 2012


Looking from England, it's odd to see that this war is part of a founding myth.

Accept that it is not. Canadians learn about the British victory at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham as part of our founding myth, Confederation and the railway, the Riel Rebellion, but the War of 1812 is, for most Canadians, trivia. I say this as a former social studies teacher. Maybe things are different in Ontario.

But what a pointless commemoration.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:29 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought it was interesting to learn that there are 1812 reenactors in Canada like there are Civil War reenactors here in the US. That had never occurred to me.

Oh, there's way more than just the US and Canada.

(Plains of Abraham? Is that a thing?)

You do realize that's a little earlier than 1812, yes?
posted by IndigoJones at 10:34 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It doesn't really register much in Canada either, to be honest.

I don't know, half of me agrees with what you say, and half of me resents it.

Most Canadians are pretty ignorant of Canadian history, but most people everywhere are pretty ignorant of history. If Canadians tend to have absorbed more ambient information about American history, that's only a result of entertainment and not education. Just because George Washington is more on the tips of people's tongues than John A. McDonald doesn't tell you anything but that null is greater than zero.

Canadian history is actually pretty interesting, and I know a lot of Canadians who agree. But there are two things to bear in mind:

i) It's not some grand swashbuckling story in the typical American sense. It's a set of small stories playing out in parallel with only loose connections.

ii) There's not much that drives people to learn history if they don't have some spiritual connection with the people. If my born-in-Thailand friend doesn't know that the plains of Abraham is distinct from the war of 1812, I don't really hold it against him, and the issue for him is largely academic.

The war of 1812 was another major event in a small (in population) country. All of this remembrance that the Conservatives are putting together is weird and distracting, but if you do identify as Canadian, don't let their histrionics put a bad taste in your mouth about actually learning and feeling connected with Canadian history. If you do identify as Canadian, than it is your responsibility to know our successes, failures, and sins, and to understand where many of our contemporary concerns arise. And if you tell me that Canadian history isn't interesting, I'll tell you that you're wrong.

Anyway, that patronizing attitude probably won't convince anyone to actually study these things, but what can I say, I'm conflicted.
posted by Alex404 at 10:57 AM on March 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


You do realize that's a little earlier than 1812, yes?

Honestly, nope. I may have been forced to read one chapter on the subject -- if any more than a single page -- when I was too young to absorb it. It has never come up since. Social Studies curriculum FTW.

And if you tell me that Canadian history isn't interesting, I'll tell you that you're wrong.

1. I didn't tell you that.
2. In order to find something interesting, you first have to know a thing or two about it.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:26 AM on March 11, 2012


Another interesting take on how Canadians and Americans both tend to think that they won the War of 1812 was published in Maclean's while back. (Full disclosure: I have a very casual acquaintance with the author of the piece.)
posted by asnider at 11:27 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kokoryu, I grew up in Ontario, and I can assure you that the War of 1812 is well-covered in Canadian history classes. Though it stands to reason that it would be less of a topic of interest in other parts of the country.
posted by spoobnooble II: electric bugaboo at 11:30 AM on March 11, 2012


I think the war of 1812 could benefit from a better name, to be honest.
posted by empath at 11:41 AM on March 11, 2012


Napoleon turned tail and left America when we played that song with the cannons.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:45 AM on March 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


That song with the cannons is actually a Fourth of July song, fyi.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:48 AM on March 11, 2012


It doesn't really register in historical memory here.

Actually I think a lot of English people vaguely recall that we burned Washington at some stage.

But I suppose even at the time it was a leading example of a war where both sides basically lost interest.
posted by Segundus at 11:52 AM on March 11, 2012


All I can remember from elementary school is that the war had something to do with trade routes and that Dolly Madison saved* a portrait of George Washington from the burning White House.

*Wikipedia tells me that story is apocryphal. You lied to me Mrs. Sevrin!
posted by octothorpe at 11:57 AM on March 11, 2012


that song with the cannons

Tchaikovsky: that song with the cannons.

Actually I think a lot of English people vaguely recall that we burned Washington at some stage.

I suppose that's the most of it though, like "stole some sailors, burnt the White House, went home, job's a good un." I faintly recall my brother telling me it that way when I was 14.
posted by Jehan at 11:58 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Obligatory Stan Rogers link: MacDonnell on the Heights, commemorating John MacDonnell, unlegendary lawyer-warrior.
posted by oulipian at 11:58 AM on March 11, 2012


Maybe they cover it more in Ontario than Alberta, but pretty much everything I know about the War of 1812, I learned from Three Dead Trolls In A Baggie. (It's the war when the White House burned burned burned...)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:06 PM on March 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


When my wife and I toured Cardiff castle we came to a regimental history room and got cornered by that English 'Spesshialiteh', the semi-autistic buff of something-or-other. In this case it was regimental history with a focus on the war of 1812. Now my wife grew up just off the St. Lawrence River near Upper Canada village and I grew up in Missisauga (right next to Toronto) and neither of us had any interest at all in History though as I child I did do the obligatory school trip to Fort York (where you learn about muskets blowing the hands off redcoats (and the occasional summer student re-enactor until they banned musket firing), the fish hook cuffs to stop snot-wiping, and that the redcoats were tiny people). Our lack of interest was Irrelevant! We were Canadian, people from the magical land of this regiments finest hour and we were going to hear all about in an incomprehensible accent at high speed while people gradually queued up behind us! I still know next to nothing about the war of 1812. Anybody have a recommendation of a good historical fiction story about it?
posted by srboisvert at 12:22 PM on March 11, 2012


I grew up in Ontario, and I can assure you that the War of 1812 is well-covered in Canadian history classes.

I did jr high on a military base in Alberta and high school at a Catholic school in Ontario. War of 1812 was covered, but it was a sidelight to the main arc - Plains of Abraham to Loyalist migration to Upper Canada Rebellion to Dominion, Riel an the railroads.

1812's generally treated as a significant but not foundational part if that history, something big that happened but which happening wasn't as essential to nationhood as Wolfe and Montcalm, Baldwin and Lafontaine, etc.

In my experience, the War of 1812 means more to those who thong warfare is intrinsically more historically significant than, say, railroad construction.
posted by gompa at 12:23 PM on March 11, 2012


(Apologies for the typos. Mefi needs a scroll bar on its posting box for iPhones ASAP.)
posted by gompa at 12:25 PM on March 11, 2012


We were Canadian, people from the magical land of this regiments finest hour and we were going to hear all about in an incomprehensible accent at high speed while people gradually queued up behind us! I still know next to nothing about the war of 1812. Anybody have a recommendation of a good historical fiction story about it?

James Thom's Panther in the Sky, based on the life of Tecumseh, is a pretty decent place to start.
posted by arto at 12:47 PM on March 11, 2012


mock sea battles rule
posted by clavdivs at 12:48 PM on March 11, 2012


Gompa: now that you mention it, I did take a Military History class in Grade 10, and we probably did cover the War Of 1812 more in depth there. Still, that war was framed as a significant point where Canadians had to defend themselves without British support, at least for a couple of years. That said, we also learned that part of the victory was based on the lack of organisation of American troops; on the other hand, the contributions of Native Canadian forces was almost entirely ignored.

I should preface all this by saying that I had a history teacher who was passionate about the subject (that most of the students didn't give a shit was unfortunately par for the course). Also, I grew up in Kingston, and history in general is a big deal in that city. We were once capital of Canada, eh? :)
posted by spoobnooble II: electric bugaboo at 1:12 PM on March 11, 2012


Hark! A Vagrant on Laura Secord.
posted by Flashman at 1:24 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hark! A Vagrant on Laura Secord.

She's also covered the Battle of Queenston Heights.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:41 PM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


thong warfare is intrinsically more historically significant than, say, railroad construction

Well, it's certainly unusual.
posted by yoink at 1:44 PM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, Laura Secord was a war hero? I only knew about the candy. Turns out she was also a hottie from history.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:20 AM on 3/11
[1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]


Whoa, that's Laura Secord???? What a babe!!!! And there was me only knowing that she warned the Canadians the Americans were coming after she crossed the border riding on her cow
posted by Bwithh at 1:45 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another interesting take on how Canadians and Americans both tend to think that they won the War of 1812 was published in Maclean's while back. (Full disclosure: I have a very casual acquaintance with the author of the piece.)


We just won it with a shot after the buzzer.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:48 PM on March 11, 2012


Tchaikovsky: that song with the cannons.

Oh, Jehan. I believe you're British (checks profile, hmm, Scunthorpe's in Turkmenistan? I thought it was Tajik.), so you haven't been exposed to this song with the cannons, unlike most Americans.

But that's my favorite "Noun: pallid description" yet.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:52 PM on March 11, 2012


Maybe things are different in Ontario.

I think it must be. I recall learning more about Louis Riel than General Brock; I was edumacated in Edmonton, Alberta mid-90s. Last year I went to the Confederation Hall museum in Charlottetown and was amazed at just how rich the story of Confederation was (and naturally got to see where it happened a few blocks away).
posted by Calzephyr at 2:06 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I live near quite a few battlefields for the war of 1812, Stoney Creek represent!, but have little actual knowledge of the war. I remember classes making a much bigger deal of William Lyon Mackenzie, uprisings against the Family Compact and Riel. I think we prefer the underdog in history and are a little embarrassed we "won" the war of 1812. Anyone looking for an entertaining history book is encouraged to look at Will Ferguson's Canadian History for Dummies.
posted by saucysault at 2:38 PM on March 11, 2012


I don't recall learning a thing about the War of 1812 when I was in school in Newfoundland. Then again, I think the popular sentiment there in the late 80s was that we might be Canadians now, but we didn't have to like it.
posted by peppermind at 2:48 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I grew up in francophone Quebec and then Nova Scotia, and the only mentions of 1812 in school were the "Oh, so there were loyalists" side stories gompa's referring to. From what I can recall, our storyline in NS jumped from the deportation of the Acadians in the 1750s-60s to Confederation and railway promises in the 1860s. Since moving to southwestern Ontario I've been able to fill in the blanks a little (it helps that I'm now in London, ON and hanging out with public history students--this is their government-imposed year to shine!).
posted by betafilter at 2:51 PM on March 11, 2012


Never forget the Pig War, we won that one too!
posted by sammyo at 3:04 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Those were excellent articles, Fizz. Thanks for the links!

"It's not some grand swashbuckling story in the typical American sense. It's a set of small stories playing out in parallel with only loose connections."

I wish I knew more about those small stories, because what little I've heard sounds pretty interesting. There were a lot of explorers, traders, settlers, citizens and First Nations people both before and after Confederation who led fascinating lives, but are pretty much forgotten now. A while back I was reading this book about the paintings of Paul Kane, and it hinted at what life was like here 200 years ago, but there wasn't much more than that.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:05 PM on March 11, 2012


There's another political angle to this that I'm surprised isn't getting more coverage. This is a big Tory 'screw you' to the Parti Québécois.

A little background for the uninitiated: the Conservative Party of Canada is mostly known, around here, for their petty, rather nasty, right-wing politics. But there's another side to the party we don't often see, which is that they hate, hate, hate Quebec separatists. The other parties are federalists, but for many leading Tories there's a personal animus that runs to the very core of their self-perception as a movement.

Ok, it so happens that many of the intellectual founders of Quebec nationalism were historians. In the 1940's and 50's, people like Michel Brunet developed a new view of the conquest of Canada (by the British in 1759) which emphasised the disruption to French-Canadian society and social development. This was a big turnaround for Quebec history, and the reaction was spectacular. A generation of students became galvanised to develop a new, nationalist school of Quebec history which sought to explain everything as a journey from oppression to liberation. That history became ideology, that ideology became political organisation, and pretty soon, French-speaking Quebeckers were engaging in a 'Quiet Revolution' to throw off the influence of the Anglos and the Catholic Church and declare a new, republican nation state on the banks of the St Lawrence. [warning: massive over-simplification alert!]

Now this is a very complicated and interesting story, but one of the little-regarded angles is the problem of the War of 1812. If you're a Quebec nationalist, 1812 is a huge problem for you. After all, you want to see the people of Lower Canada (as then was) as an oppressed proletariat living under the English boot. But in 1812 Lower Canadians rather inconveniently refused to act like oppressed proletarians, and with pretty good reason. Many Canadiens were still Seigniorial elites in a very early-modern (really a kind of feudal) society, and thus staunchly monarchist. Moreover, Canadiens still remembered the attack on Quebec during the Revolutionary War, when American invaders had offered to liberate their English-speaking neighbours from the yoke of Catholicism.

So in 1812 the Canadiens, much as their French cousins were doing across the Atlantic, put on the uniform of their king (motto: Dieu et mon doit) and lined up to fight the invader. They were lead, in large part, by a French-Canadian officer class who, just as in France, had little difficulty switching allegiances when monarchs came and went like clouds across the land. And so it was that military leaders like Charles de Salaberry wrote their names, eternally, upon the pages of Francophone military history! Eternally, that is, until the 1960's.

Because at that point, people like Charles de Salaberry and the Ancient Regime Quebeckers who followed him wearing the King's Scarlet, became very, very inconvenient. And so they were buried and, in the nationalist history memorialised so vigorously by Quebec nationalists, simply ceased to exist.

But now, the Harper Government has the opportunity to dig up all these relics and thrust them into the faces of their most hated ideological enemies. In English Canada, the official rhetoric of remembrance and memorialisation (contrary to popular belief, this is not being pitched as a jingoistic 'we won' festival) makes them look a little more sensitive and historically aware to the Old Money political donors of Toronto. In Quebec (motto: Je mes souviens), remembering the War of 1812 carries a very different meaning.
posted by Dreadnought at 4:10 PM on March 11, 2012 [15 favorites]


Far from identifying Canadians as “beautiful losers,” the War of 1812 casts us as rather nasty fighters with a vengeful streak.

Just as well. The US had plans to invade and conquer Canada that were only declassified in 1974 - although they were last updated in 1935.

"First, we send a joint Army-Navy overseas force to capture the port city of Halifax, cutting the Canadians off from their British allies.

Then we seize Canadian power plants near Niagara Falls, so they freeze in the dark.

Then the U.S. Army invades on three fronts -- marching from Vermont to take Montreal and Quebec, charging out of North Dakota to grab the railroad center at Winnipeg, and storming out of the Midwest to capture the strategic nickel mines of Ontario.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy seizes the Great Lakes and blockades Canada's Atlantic and Pacific ports.

At that point, it's only a matter of time before we bring these Molson-swigging, maple-mongering Zamboni drivers to their knees! Or, as the official planners wrote, stating their objective in bold capital letters: "ULTIMATELY TO GAIN COMPLETE CONTROL.""

(The Canadians had plans to do the same in reverse, which might not have been quite as mad as it sounds - I believe a lot of German WW2 blitzkrieg strategy came from WWI Canadian tactics like the leapfrogging at the Battle of Vimy Ridge).
posted by Devonian at 4:14 PM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've lived in New York State all my life but I never heard much about the naval engagements on the Great Lakes until I moved to Rochester. There's plenty of ignorance on this side of the border for War of 1812 history (except for the parts about Washington D.C. and New Orleans).
posted by tommasz at 4:18 PM on March 11, 2012


so you haven't been exposed to this song with the cannons yt , unlike most Americans.

No, really, as far as I've always known the 1812 Overture is by far more played at US patriotic celebrations. My local symphony -- which usually plays it as part of the Independence Day concert in courthouse square -- is always careful to preface it with an explanation of how it incorporates the French and Russian anthems.

Some years, we even have a real cannon.
posted by dhartung at 5:01 PM on March 11, 2012


The Canadians had plans to do the same in reverse, which might not have been quite as mad as it sounds - I believe a lot of German WW2 blitzkrieg strategy came from WWI Canadian tactics like the leapfrogging at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Of course, the Canadian battle plans consisted primarily of trying to get the Americans' jerseys over their heads, then raining in uppercuts before the referees pulled them apart.

(It was actually based on a counterattack against the US, with rapid pushes in various theatres to try to take Seattle and Portland, Fargo and Minneapolis, and Albany. The strategic goal was to hold the Americans off long enough for the British to come to our defence. The British secret war plan in the case of an attack on Canada was to write a strongly worded letter of complaint, then do absolutely nothing else to come to our defence.)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 5:26 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Okay, I'm confused. What is the song with the cannons? The 1812 Overture has cannons but that's about Napoleon and Russia. Is there another one?

I think the most surprising thing to me about what Americans (that I've met) are taught about the War of 1812 is that they think is was the US vs. Britain and don't believe me that there were Canadians (or proto-Canadians) fighting. They seem to imagine that we imported our whole army to fight the invasion.
posted by hydrobatidae at 6:27 PM on March 11, 2012


Kokoryu, I grew up in Ontario, and I can assure you that the War of 1812 is well-covered in Canadian history classes. Though it stands to reason that it would be less of a topic of interest in other parts of the country.

That's what figured. In BC, I spent a lot of time teaching about Fort Victoria and Sir James Douglas, building the CPR, the Northwest Mounted Police, and the Fur Trade. A little bit about the Pacific Scandal, a little bit about Laurier and Reciprocity.

It wasn't until I read the Pierre Berton books about the War of 1812 that I learned who Brock was, and why there might be a university named after him. Laura Secord makes great pudding.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:43 PM on March 11, 2012


What is the song with the cannons? The 1812 Overture has cannons but that's about Napoleon and Russia. Is there another one?

Well, there's Beethoven's Wellington's Victory, which can be performed with a full compliment of 193 cannon, and apparently is performed thus in the UK on occasion. It also uses more than a few muskets and fireworks if you're really doing it right.
posted by hippybear at 7:05 PM on March 11, 2012


The USA better go to DEFCON 1 'cuz Canada has just dropped an War of 1812 rap
posted by Bwithh at 7:24 PM on March 11, 2012


And heeeeere's Johnny Horton with the Battle of New Orleans!
posted by deborah at 7:36 PM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


the War of 1812 means more to those who thong warfare is intrinsically more historically significant than, say, railroad construction.

Many years later, Sisqó would attempt to burn down the White House in frustration after being informed that he was indeed a one-hit wonder.
posted by mannequito at 7:49 PM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Previously.
posted by arcticseal at 7:50 PM on March 11, 2012


"The US had plans to invade and conquer Canada that were only declassified in 1974 "

Something something something Canadian Bacon something something "We have ways of making you pronounce the letter O, pal."

"I don't know what you're talking ... aboot."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:49 PM on March 11, 2012


When my wife and I toured Cardiff castle we came to a regimental history room and got cornered by that English 'Spesshialiteh', the semi-autistic buff of something-or-other

That's a lovely term; it sounds like a great alternative to the name I gave to that tribe of British fact enthusiasts, the Queen's Geeks (alternatively, the "Army Army" for the military history buffs you encounter at Imperial War Museum, and indeed, Cardiff Castle, from a cricketing reference)

Alas, the only google reference to this term points back to this page and your post, so I'm still wondering what it means in the first place. :)
posted by the cydonian at 12:28 AM on March 12, 2012


Because at that point, people like Charles de Salaberry and the Ancient Regime Quebeckers who followed him wearing the King's Scarlet, became very, very inconvenient. And so they were buried and, in the nationalist history memorialised so vigorously by Quebec nationalists, simply ceased to exist.

It's not so much that the (remnants of) the French Canadian elite were monarchists who didn't care which monarch, as that all French Canadians at that time knew where their interests lay.

To be fair to the historical Québecois, if not the revisionist souverainistes, the habitants who fought for the British king under their seigneur leaders had good reason, in their minds, to do so. The Brits, after defeating Montcalm, had given them a pretty good deal, all things considered:

Stay out of national power structures for the most part, and leave the best parts of the economy to les anglais, and we'll let you keep your rural French-speaking culture, run by the Catholic Church (mainly the Jesuits, whose first loyalty had never been to the French king, anyway, but to Rome.) See the quote below from Joel Garreau's Quebec chapter in his book The Nine Nations of North America for a good synopsis.

Throwing away this circumscribed but at least dependable arrangement for the unknown of being "liberated" by the Americans was unappealing to les Canadiens. Better the têtes-carrées you know than the ones you don't.

The fact that it took two centuries for the Québecois to reach critical consensus that maybe having their lives run by the Catholic Church, thus ensuring their backwardness, wasn't such a great idea, is what is, or at least should be, so embarrassing to the separatists.

The taking of the city of Quebec in 1759, when the British general Wolfe overcame the defender, Montcalm, on the Plains of Abraham, resulted, in 1760, in the ending of a series of border wars between the two European powers. The Conquest also settled, for exactly two centuries, the fate of the Quebecois: an overwhelmingly French society was to be ruled by the English. The lack of resistance on the part of the habitants to this arrangement after the Conquest was based on the burdensome treatment they had received at the hands of the old French ruling class, coupled with the amazingly tolerant, for its era, attitude of the British.

On the one hand, to the habitants who were well into their second and third generation as North Americans by now, France was becoming increasingly irrelevant. The old country had never really embraced New France except as a get-rich-quick scheme. In fact, the habitants had come to associate the transient French with scandals, extortions, and internal bickerings associated with the lining of their own pockets even at the expense of advancing the cause of the empire.

One of the major reasons the habitants gave of their lives and resources in the fight with their French cousins against the British before the Conquest was a misguided self- interest. They believed that with the French in power, all they had to deal with was the burden of corruption. With the British in power, they firmly believed, their language, religion, and way of life would be destroyed.

But the British, after the fighting, offered a canny deal that, for all practical purposes, started to freeze the development of Quebec society right where it was. All sides ended up accepting it with gratitude. The habitants got to keep what they wanted - their rural French North American society. The French elite was saved from instant ruin, although in short order they found themselves in decline, as some merchants and administrators left for greener pastures and others were crippled by the disruption of their lines of credit and sources of goods on the continent. The British got the peace and quiet that they would have loved to obtain from their thirteen Atlantic colonies to the south. And the big winner under the new English Protestant regime, ironically, was the Roman Catholic Church, which became the executor of this deal, and thus, in effect, the real wielder of secular power over the vast majority of the inhabitants of Quebec.

"The political authority of a Protestant society," writes Alfred Dubuc, "thus became the defender of the values and institutions of the Catholic Church, while the religious authorities of French-Canadian society upheld, in the eyes of their flocks, British institutions."

The influential independentist sociologist-historian Marcel Rioux, in drawing political observations from these developments, says, "After the Conquest, Quebec society, far from continuing to develop like other Western societies of the era, becoming industrial, urbanized, and secular, on the contrary draws inward upon its popular and rural elements and, instead of becoming more urbanized, becomes more folklike. We observe, among other phenomena, a greater predominance of agricultural occupations; a greater scattering of the population among the rural parishes; more social homogeneity; reinforcement of moral and religious norms; less important internal stratification and differentiation; and finally, a more restricted territorial, occupational, and upward mobility."

And that's a polite way of saying it. What you had, until the "Quiet Revolution" began in 1960, was a society that, in hindsight, was amazingly backward and ingrown by North American standards.

In fact, many Quebecois now date the dark ages of their society not from the Conquest of 1760, but from the 1830s, when the democratic liberal secular elite from within the Quebecois society began to try to wrest power away from the Church and the English. This resulted in armed revolution by 1837, but the Patriotes, as they were called, were defeated by the same old coalition: French Catholic denunciation from the pulpit, and professional English military tacticians on the ground. It was after the crushing of the Patriotes that the Quebecois, while still far and away the majority in Quebec, began to think of themselves less as one of the races destined to rule North America than as a minority. In order to convince themselves that their survival was worthwhile, they immersed themselves in their ancient traditions, and thus was launched 150 years of petrifying conservatism.

posted by Philofacts at 1:00 AM on March 12, 2012


You know, there are also reenactors for World War Two, who stage the Battle of the Bulge in Ohio or someplace in the middle of the country.

There are also Civil War reenactors who create new battles just so they can have something to do in their hometown.

Some Philadelphians have created, out of thin air, a "Battle of Belmont Plateau" that will be "reenacted" in Fairmount Park this summer.

I can't wait to see how the good residents of Parkside react to a Confederate battle flag parading up Montgomery Drive. There may be a battle after all...
posted by snottydick at 6:57 AM on March 12, 2012


We do celebrate war well! Except, the 100 anniversary of this war just happens to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Which, incidentally, is having a lot more money and effort thrown at it from the states of the losing side than the winning side.

Perhaps because the majority of battles were fought there.
posted by highwayman at 12:55 PM on March 12, 2012


Thanks, Philofacts for your very erudite comment. I'd still disagree with Garreau, but I'm going to do so cautiously, because this is very much out of my area.

The passage from Garreau that you quote shows many of the fingerprints of the very Quebec historians I mentioned in my comment. The view of the Canadiens as a canny, commercial people -- getting the best out of distant imperial overlords and looking out for their own -- has had a lot of currency since the '50's. The problem, in my view, is that this view of French-Canadian society is very much based on an attempt to transplant the social history of England into the very different environment of New France.

Contemporary Englishmen were commercially focused, with ever-diminishing feudal rights, a flourishing stock market and enormously powerful trans-national trading companies beginning to drive government policy. France, by contrast, was dominated by continual attempts to centralise power on the part of the King's government, and to assert ancient feudal privilege on the part of the non-Royal aristocracy. Military service, in France, meant something very different from in the United Kingdom. Unlike the British, French officers had to demonstrate many generations of noble ancestry before they could get a commission. This created a much more cleanly distinct officer class in France than in the UK, where military service was seen more as a good career for enterprising younger sons.

But most importantly, the French were much more deeply steeped in the ideology of absolutism. Today, this might seem to make them less 'modern' than the Brits or the Dutch, but, to an early-modern person, absolutism was often seen as the most enlightened, most forward-thinking form of government. For many Europeans, the British state was not forward-looking in its liberalism, but merely weak. Even when, in the French Revolution, the peasantry was supposed to rise up and throw off generations of aristocratic oppression, huge chunks of the country refused to do so and, instead, fought against the revolutionaries and for the stability and moral authority (as they would see it) of the old order.

So what does this have to do with New France? We tend to see the Canadiens through the lens of their commercial middle classes because historians like Brunet started out by saying 'other historians teach us that the bourgeoisie is the most important part of society, so let's concentrate on them'. One article I read even has this bit where the author said 'and in such-and-such a year the governor set up a market for selling goods... and so we can see they had a proto-stock market'. The writer is presumably trying to make New French society look economically advanced according to an Anglo-centric conception of economic advancement but, in fact, I think he ends up looking a little fanciful.

But in excluding the rest of society from their story, these writers miss, well, most of society. New France was settled by colonists hand-picked for their religious and ideological steadfastness, a cultural attribute which seems unlikely to have died out in a mere two or three generations (and indeed which seems not to have). Every city gate had the King's arms above it. French soldiers patrolled the streets, and new military formations were locally raised on French lines. A local aristocracy, planted by the French, took up its traditional role in the new society and commerce was constrained by law and ran through the mills of the aristocratic elite.

Not that people didn't chafe and complain about local conditions and famines and incompetent government administration, but this was also a fact of French life back across the Atlantic. 1759, after all, came just thirty years before 1789. I also take Garreau's point about the stability imposed by the British, although I think this had more to do with the fact that they local British administration expected to hand Quebec back to the French, and didn't want to make a muck of things trying to convert the deeply religious locals in the short term.

The overall picture, though, is one in which historical opinions of sixty years ago have become fossilized in the discourse about the history of Quebec. In an attempt to give these people a retrospective sense of independence, those historians (rather ironically) imposed upon them English ideas which were not all that appropriate to their cultural outlook. Rather, I tend to think of the early-modern Canadiens as being more French than the French, rather than less so.
posted by Dreadnought at 1:44 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think we agree more than you think.

The writers Garreau quote aren't, as far as I can tell, saying that the bulk of the habitants (the paysans, as well as the relatively few seigneurs, the local aristocracy set up to recreate the social structure of the old country) were commercially savvy and/or rebellious; au contraire: Garreau himself, in summarizing their research (I presume), notes that it was the transient French, the ones who were only there part-time to make a buck, "even at the expense of advancing the cause of the empire", not the paysans & seigneurs themselves, who were the ones trying to game the system. The paysans and seigneurs, on the one hand, were tradition-bound in their attitudes, albeit with some modifications in social practices, as noted in Garreau's text below; the traders & middlemen who were only there for the fur trade and similar resource exploitation were the ones who gave rise to the system gamers.

I'm sure the habitants' disgust with these nascent I-got-mine capitalists was precisely due, in part, to their absolutism, their (misguided) faith in their king, their lords and the Church. (How dare these rootless cosmopolitans disrespect le Roi et l'ancien regime! We're here in good faith to further the cause of La France! The fact that the nobility and le roi himself didn't really give a shit about them other than as flag-planters for resource extraction may or may not have entered their awareness.)

But another point Garreau makes is that the seigneurs were less able to fulfill their roles as feudalesque protectors and arbiters than were their counterparts in the old world. So although the paysans had a basic attitude of respect for and allegiance to the feudal power structure, to the lords and to the King, in practice the presence of that power structure was less important on a daily basis than the much more immediate presence of the Church. So if you want to ascribe to an institution the honour of the focus of the paysans' respectful absolutism, it would be the Church. Once they saw that the English would leave the Church alone (and consequently their language and culture which was organized around it), they had no problem with the post-Conquest arrangement, for the most part.

It was the minority urban secular elites (the intellectual ancestors of today's souverainistes who grumble over their croissants in cafés up and down rue St. Denis) who chafed at the control the Church had of everyday life, and saw how it worked hand in glove with British imperial interests, and who futilely began armed rebellion in 1837. They were right, of course, about the power arrangement and the devil's bargain it really was for the French, keeping them backwards, but the bulk of the Quebecois didn't want to know about it; they just wanted to be left alone.

The real shameful fact for today's separatists is how many of their ancestors were basically patsies for an imperial arrangement, right up through Duplessis' reign in the 1950s, even though many paysans were really only nominally religious (they sinned like mofos for many decades, but saw no reason to challenge the hypocritical arrangement where the priests ran things and pretended that their flocks were upstanding Christians, since, hey, we get to go on being French!) The Quiet Revolution was really kind of a cringing realization that, hey, wait a minute, we don't really want to go to Church any more, and, oh yes, look who's in control of the economy, better fix that (remember the nationalization of Shawinigan Water and Power to form the basis of Hydro Québec?), while admitting, sometimes, amongst themselves, that the fact that it took them so long to face the bad deal that the post-Conquest arrangement had been for them in the long run (although they'd survived, they were solidly second-class citizens in their own land) was entirely their own fault. They had embraced their backwardness in a fantasy that it was somehow a more "pure" lifestyle. They'd drunk the Catholic Kool-Aid.

So you're right in the sense that the separatists are dishonestly revisionist in imagining the bulk of their ancestors as noble resistors when in fact most were quite happy to collaborate in their ghettoization, by not seeing it as ghettoization. This dishonesty is nurtured in close concert with a now obsolete sense of victimhood. (Again, they lovingly helped maintain that sense of victimhood for many decades, even as some really nasty English prejudice - "Speak white!" gave it a raison d'être.) They've basically won their first-class citizenship, since 1976, but you wouldn't know it sometimes, to hear the grumbles.

(BTW, I'm not sure what to make of the claim that the Brits thought they'd hand Lower Canada back to France before long. Maybe, but it also made sense to just ghettoize the habitants in any case, let them live in their insular sphere as long as they didn't make trouble; simpler than trying to turn them into Protestant anglophones, and too many of them to deport as they'd done with l'Acadie, where a generation later my United Empire Loyalist ancestors resettled.)

Garreau:

The French settlers, or habitants, made some major adjustments to the institutions and patterns of thought of the Old World in their first 150 years.

For one thing, the traditional French political tripod of manor lord, priest, and peasant was severely damaged, and with it the link to secular authority. In a harsh environment like Quebec's, the seigneur - the fellow who had received the land grant from the Crown and who in turn subdivided it among the habitants - was a poor imitation of the protective nobility of feudal France. He was hardly in a position to ensure the settlers protection from the startling new range of adversities of the St. Lawrence wilderness. So, in the face of ugly winters and unhappy Iroquois, the habitants organized themselves cooperatively, rather than hierarchically, even altering the centuries-old pattern of laying out farms so that it would be easier for one neighbor to help another rather than rely on the civil authorities.

Under such an arrangement, there wasn't a great deal of need for a bureaucracy. Social and agricultural affairs were taken care of informally, within the limits of the settlement made up of equals, and without a great deal of attention paid to the peasant ways of Europe.

Thus, two societies developed in New France, one metropolitan, educated, literate, and dependent for markets, wages, and ideas on the ties to the old country. The other, the ancestors of the bulk of today's Quebecois, was self-sufficient and, except for the maddening habit of thinking, acting, and speaking in French, utterly North American. While the habitants, for example, might not have had a clue as to how to behave amid French sophisticates, they certainly had some ideas about how to behave around, say, a North American bear, a development not unusual in pioneer societies.

As the habitants thus assigned less importance to life in a secular municipality, the ever-present parish priest moved into the power vacuum.

The priest was literate, which meant he was needed whenever a legal document like a will or a bill of sale was required. He was the guardian of recorded history - the records of births, marriages, and deaths. (In fact, he was so good at maintaining the public records that, to this day, Quebec's genealogical records are among the finest in the world.) The demands made on him as a spiritual overseer were brisk, because the French settlers were notorious for letting the good times roll, a cultural trait nurtured to this day.

But the key element in this march toward the future was that the priest's first allegiance was not to France. Ultramontanism was a very hot issue at this time. It held, essentially, that there should be one Church, independent of who was in power in what country. The Jesuits, specifically, of New France were great believers in this theory, so maintaining the culture of the empire was in no way as important to them as was reporting directly to the home office in Rome.

This was the kind of rickety social structure which was smashed by the British when they conquered the French colony by force of arms.

posted by Philofacts at 11:57 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


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