Debating a war’s legacy

With the bicentennial of the War of 1812 approaching, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and heritage minister James Moore have been planning to commemorate the war as an expression of a clear full Canadian identity.

On Sept. 29, Terry Copp, professor emeritus, gave a lecture at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) explaining how a public commemoration may cause problems regarding the memory of the war.

One of the main themes of Copp’s lecture was the question of how to approach the idea of war and the construction of memory regarding war as it developed in relation to the War of 1812.

“Anyone who would try and talk about the War of 1812 for the public, for commemorative purposes, has to simplify [the events],” stated Copp.

By having a simplified version presented to the public from the government, the memory of the War of 1812 will be re-shaped. As a result, Copp’s lecture went over the war from a historian’s perspective, explaining causes for the battles and the outcomes of them.

He also noted that, “nobody won [the War of 1812] militarily, but we — we being Canada —didn’t lose it, and by not losing we survived. If we had of lost it, there would be no Canada.”

Using the assumption that Canada may not have existed if a loss occurred, Harper plans on making the bicentennial an event to help elevate Canadian patriotic imagery in regards to the future of the nation. The prime minister hopes to make Canadians more aware of what the military has achieved for the country in the past.

“[Harper] would like to have Canadians remember and think about the role that the military has played in defining and defending Canada,” explained Copp.

When asked whether or not Canadians think or have interest in the War of 1812 right now, Copp stated that they most likely do not.

“I think until five months ago nobody was paying the slightest attention and now because the government has created this fund for commemoration . . . suddenly it is a subject of interest,” he said.

Copp also explained to the attendees that the study of memory and the study of the past are different; there is a difference between myth, reality, and the way in which memories are constructed.

In regards to that construction of memory, he mentioned that the real losers of the war — the First Nations and the soldiers who fought and died —should be accredited and remembered for what they fought for and lost in order for our country to succeed.

Brendan O’Driscoll, a fourth-year history major at Laurier who attended, was also wary of Harper’s plans for the bicentennial. “We need to keep an open mind about what this commemoration is trying to say to us about ourselves,” he said.