NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — Canada and the United States started the new year by firing cannons at each other across the Niagara River, which separates the province of Ontario from the state of New York, leaving a whiff of gunpowder and politicking in the air. The guns at Fort George on the Canadian side and Old Fort Niagara on the American shore were replicas of those from the 1812 war between the two countries and were loaded with blanks.
They fired the first salvo in what Canada's government plans as a noisy 200th anniversary celebration of a war in which British redcoats, colonial militia, and Indian allies stopped an American invasion (which Thomas Jefferson mistakenly predicted was "a mere matter of marching") of what was then a sparsely populated string of colonies. "The heroic efforts of those who fought for our country in the War of 1812 tell the story of the Canada we know today: an independent and free country with a constitutional monarchy and its own distinct parliamentary system," says James Moore, the minister of Canadian Heritage.
That wraps the maple syrup of truth in the waffle of propaganda. Although Canada did not become a self-governing country until 1867, the 1812 war did help to forge a common identity among disparate colonists, many of whom were Americans who had come north out of loyalty to the Crown or in search of cheap land. But the Indians did more to foil the American invasion than the Canadian militia, and the British reneged on a promise to reward them with land, according to Alan Taylor, a historian of the war. The Canadian side won mainly because the Americans were poorly led, supplied, and organized. Both sides plundered and murdered civilians.
Stephen Harper, Canada's Conservative prime minister, is keen to play up his country's image and past as a warrior nation. (His Liberal predecessors preferred to stress its commitment to peacekeeping.) If Americans paid much attention to Canada, they might be offended. Instead they seem bemused. "I've never heard of two countries trying to figure out how to have a party over a war," said Rick Snyder, Michigan's governor, during a recent visit.
The Americans humored their northern friend and neighbor by firing their cannon. But Old Fort Niagara was closed to the American public for New Year's Day, whereas at Fort George the lieutenant governor of Ontario, Queen Elizabeth's representative in the province, held his annual reception.