Originally published on Torontoist on April 9, 2013.
The Death of Brock at Queenston Heights, painted by C.W. Jefferys, circa 1908. Government of Ontario Art Collection, Archives of Ontario.
With all the hoopla over the bicentenary of the War of 1812, it’s easy to concentrate on the battles, the heroes who filled generations of school textbooks, and the idea that the conflict was an important part of establishing our national identity. The complexities of the war and its legacies aren’t as romantic or attention-grabbing, but they invite interesting questions about our notions of who we are and how we remember critical events in our history.
Perceptions of 1812: Identity, Diversity, Memory, the current exhibit at the Archives of Ontario‘s exhibit space on the York University campus, uses the archives’ holdings to provide a broader picture of the war and its enduring impact. The items and panels on display cover topics ranging from personal wartime correspondence to the role auto-based tourism played in preserving crumbling forts.
How many items related to the War of 1812 does the Archives have among its 100,000 metres of textual records? It’s hard to guess. “Although some documents are directly related to the conflict,” notes David Tyler of the Archives’ information department, “most of our related material documents life in Upper Canada at that time, providing the necessary context for studying the war. We also hold many items related to Ontario’s attempts to memorialize and commemorate the war over the past 200 years.” Tyler has noticed a significant increase in requests about the war over the past year, mostly from people living in areas affected by the conflict in southwestern Ontario and around the U.S. border. Many of these requests are followups to the Archives’ main online exhibit about the war. Tyler recommends that anyone looking for a general introduction to the Archives’ war-related holdings consult an online research guide, available in PDF format.
Perceptions of 1812, at the Archives of Ontario. Image courtesy of the Archives of Ontario.
For Perceptions of 1812‘s curator, Ross Fair, the diversity of the material in the Archives made it easy to avoid duplicating existing online exhibits. Because most of the military records are held elsewhere, Fair had no choice but to focus on political and social issues that arose in the war’s aftermath.
Among the war’s effects was a noticeable change in the nature of the political divisions of the time, from national borders to the ideological boundary between the high Tories who formed the Family Compact and the Reformers who paved the path to responsible government. Another issue was “aliens,” migrants from the United States whom the colonial elites regarded suspiciously. Attempts to block the rights of those who migrated during or after the war raged until 1828, when those who arrived before 1820 were given full rights as British citizens, while those who arrived after could swear an oath of allegiance after seven years of residency. In other words, postwar Canada was far from perfect. “We celebrate the heroes who stood and defended this war,” Fair noted in a recent Heritage Toronto lecture, “but I suspect most of us wouldn’t want to live in the society that they envisioned Upper Canada to be.”
In an interview with Torontoist, Fair observed that the Archives has great photos of efforts to restore the remains of several War of 1812 forts, during the 1930s. The images on display show the shocking extent of the decay at these sites. Kingston’s Fort Henry, in particular, had practically disintegrated into rubble. The forts were restored, in part, because of their intrinsic historical value, but also because they were tourist attractions. Their roles as destinations for motorists—and as make-work projects during the Great Depression—shouldn’t be underplayed.
Laura Secord, by Mildred Peel, 1904. Government of Ontario Art Collection, Archives of Ontario.
Romanticized illustrations of the war also played a role in keeping its memory alive. The work of C.W. Jefferys, in textbook illustrations and books like the three-volume The Picture Gallery of Canadian History, in some cases, gave faces to historical figures whose actual images were never recorded—like Laura Secord, now legendary for her brave trek through the woods. Perceptions of 1812 contrasts Jefferys’ depiction of the future candy-store icon with a portrait of an older Secord displayed for years in Queen’s Park—a portrait that x-rays later revealed had been painted over a depiction of Ontario Premier George Ross.
We asked Fair and Tyler which items in the exhibit were their favourites. Tyler chose a 1912 picture from celebrations at the Brock Monument, commemorating the centennial of the Battle of Queenston Heights. Among the depicted dignitaries is Dr. Alexander Fraser, the first Archivist of Ontario, whose kilt stands out from the rest of the crowd. Fair chose two items: a letter Isaac Brock wrote after the British victory at Detroit, which conveys the sense of the joy he experienced, and maps made by surveyor David Thompson to define the postwar border.