The War of 1812 and the Fathers of Confederation

3 07 2013

That’s the title of a piece by Chris Champion in the current number of The Dorchester Review.

It’s a somewhat rambling essay, but Champion makes some interesting observations about the War of 1812, Confederation, and the links between the two. His apparent thesis is that the War of 1812 somehow drove Confederation or was closely connected to it. Well, I suppose this is true in the sense that all important prior events exert an influence on subsequent events. One could argue the patriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982 was a by-product of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. However, pointing to the Wall Street Crash has limited value in explaining how and why the constitution was re-written in the early 1980s.  The 1980 Quebec Referendum is rather more important in explaining the timing of patriation. Similarly, political deadlock in the Province of Canada, Upper Canadian agitation for Rep by Pop, and the Fenian Raids, all do far more to explain why Confederation came about in 1867 and the details of that constitutional settlement than the War of 1812.

Moreover, connecting the War of 1812 and Confederation overlooks the sheer extent to which the eastern sections of British North America had been transformed in the intervening period. (I will concede that everyday life in the Prairies in the 1860s was pretty similar to what it had been like in 1812). Upper Canada is 1812 was a sparsely settled frontier settlement. Whites still shared political control with Natives: the First Nations population of the Great Lakes region was important allies of the British Crown and had not yet been reduced from being warriors to wards. By the 1860s, the process of agricultural settlement in what is now Southern Ontario was largely complete. The frontier phase was complete and society was experiencing industrialization and urbanization. There were cross-border railways and big factories and a nascent stock exchange.  In the previous half century, Upper Canada had been repopulated: the pre-1815 population of First Nations people and Yankee settlers had been overwhelmed by a wave of migrants from the British Isles. There were similarly dramatic changes in the other eastern British North American colonies, and the two British colonies on the Pacific Coast, Vancouver Island and British Columbia, had experienced even more change.

What the British North America of the 1860s had in common with the British North America of 1812 was that the political classes of the colonies professed hostility to the republic to their south and great devotion to the British Crown. They considered themselves to be British.  Whether or not the average person in British North America bought into this ideology of Britishness is hard to say, since the archival record is incomplete and biased towards the upper classes, politicians, lawyers, etc. Public opinion polls did not begin to be taken until the 1930s, so we simply don’t know whether the average farmer, lumberjack, or small businessman agreed with colonial politicians who declared that the people of the colonies would be willing to make great sacrifices, even to the point of death, so that they could remain British subjects.

I suspect that most people in British North America in the 1860s, as in 1812, probably didn’t care that much whether lived under the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack. In the generation after the 1860s, large numbers of Canadians migrated to the United States in search of higher living standards, which suggests they were indifferent to the British connection. In much the same way, a significant number of Canadians in 1812 were either indifferent to news that the British and American governments were at war or welcomed the Americans as liberators.  That Canadians were indifferent about their allegiance is not terribly surprising, since in the American Revolution a large section of the white population of the Thirteen Colonies were uninterested in the question of whether the colonies should be independent of Britain.