The war that defines Canadians befuddles us


I lied to a Canadian border guard this month. It was a lie of omission.

I had driven over the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit. In Windsor, I picked a guard station that had no vehicles waiting. The guard was a young woman, the polished bill of her hat pulled just above her brown eyes. She gave me the impression she was not to be trifled with.

“Bonjour,” she said, more matter-of-fact than friendly. I was taken aback by the French greeting — even though I know Canada is bilingual — but I said hello.

I handed her my passport. She asked where I was going and why. This I had rehearsed.

“Milton,” I said of a city in Ontario just west of Toronto. “My son pipes for the 78th Frasers. He invited me to come up and hear him and the bagpipe band play at a benefit dinner tomorrow night.” All this was true.

She asked what I was bringing.

“Just a change of clothes,” I said.

She returned my passport and waved me through. The lie worked.

The lie of omission was the kind of clothes I was bringing: a replica of an artillerist’s uniform of the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. I also omitted my other reason for coming to Canada: to secure Fort York in Toronto for the United States.

The genesis of my trip was a comment I heard on a Canadian TV show. In America, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are political satirists with their own TV shows. Their counterpart in Canada is Rick Mercer.

I enjoy Mr. Mercer not so much for his political satire, but because — unlike Mr. Colbert and Mr. Stewart — he travels throughout his country and takes part in events and activities.

In October, 2011, he said in a commentary: “The [Canadian] federal government has announced that it has set aside 11 million dollars to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812. You know, I don’t know what shoves it in America’s face more: the fact that 200 years later we’re still doing a victory dance, or the fact that we actually have 11 million extra dollars to blow on a party.”

That stuck in my craw. Not the $11 million. But that Canadians think they won the war.

I volunteer at Fort Meigs State Memorial in Perrysburg. It’s a reconstruction of the site Gen. William Henry Harrison commissioned to protect a few thousand troops mustered to invade Canada. The 200th anniversary of the first turn of a shovelful of dirt to build the fort is Saturday.

Most War of 1812 re-enactors I know accept the prevailing school of thought that the war ended in a draw. After about 2½ years of fighting, the Americans and the British reached a treaty that in essence restored all conditions that existed when the war started.

That’s among the reasons Canadians think they won the war. They see it as their kicking us out.

Shortly after I drove away from the guard post, I stopped at a visitors center. There was a display of brochures and posters under the banner: “The War of 1812: What Defined Us as a Nation.”

Funny. In America, the War of 1812 befuddles us as a nation. I appreciate that our Canadian neighbors embrace the history of a time we in America largely ignore.

The next day, resplendent in my white cotton pants, white wool vest, leather neck stock, and dark blue wool coatee with red accents and gold trim, I strode purposefully into the gift shop at Fort York in downtown Toronto. Three of the fort’s staff were there in modern clothes.

“I claim this fort in the name of President Madison,” I said. That would be James Madison, our president back then.

A staffer said: “I’ll go get a musket.”

I was quick to acquiesce. I was outmanned and outgunned. I had no weapon. I didn’t want to press my luck at the border.

Then a Canadian re-enactor dressed as a British artillerist — oddly enough, his authentic replica uniform had the same color scheme as mine; British infantry wore those famous red coats — gave me a personal tour.

Fort York is a wonderful site, and it includes a nod to the fighting at Fort Meigs.

I left on good terms. In fact, I repeatedly was asked whether I would return that night to attend a dinner event at the fort. I said I had other plans.

That night at the benefit dinner in Milton, I told the story of my Fort York visit. My host was impressed that I, and people like me on both sides of the border, keep alive the memory of that time.

He asked me to let him know when Fort Meigs will have a re-enactment, because he’d like to visit.

Sure, I said. We routinely are visited by Canadian re-enactors.

And if having Canadians think they won the war helps keep our relations friendly, that’s fine with me.

Dennis Bova is a copy editor for The Blade’s Pages of Opinion.

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