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National War of 1812 Monument

A 150-year struggle, championed by a Canadian premier, a women's rights activist and generations
of Canadian veterans, that encountered many hurtles including the sinking of the TITANTIC.

"The ship’s aground!” a voice cried out in the darkness as the transport Harpooner struck a rock off Newfoundland.   Momentarily freed by the raging sea, the vessel smashed into another jagged protrusion.  Taking on water and collapsing on its side, panic spread through the ship.  Fire broke out adding to the mayhem.  Crashing waves washed the life boats, and those trying to get to them, from the deck.  Its masts gone, the wooden ship slid off the reef and into deeper waters. 

A handful of sailors who had made it to shore, stared helplessly at those trapped on the floundering vessel.  Desperate for an escape route, a plan was hatched to get a rope from the doomed ship to the men on shore.   Tying the life line around the waist of a dog, man’s best friend braved the tossing, frigid waters to dry land.  Soon people entered the tumultuous sea holding desperately to the rope.  Debris tossing in the surf, stuck some ending their hopes of surviving. 

Thirty souls had been pulled from the sea when disaster struck.  The rope caught the razor edge of a rock and was cut.    With no means to replace it, the survivors watched heartbrokenly as the vessel was torn apart.  The “cries and last agonizing sobs of men, women and children” could be heard above the rolling waves, as the sea claimed their lives.   All told over two hundred War of 1812 veterans with their wives and children were lost that day on November 10, 1816.

Today another ship seems to have crashed on the rocks and is taking on water fast.  Canadian awareness of their historical roots was sinking.  A generation ago, it was a given that the War of 1812 played a central role in Canada becoming a nation.  If one believes the some media pundits, this century-old view, actively promoted by the present federal government is unfounded.   True, unbridled Canadian patriotism of the late 1800s distorted some facts and embellished the roles of some individuals from the war.  But who could blame them?  Charting a path separate from the United States had required an independent national identity.  The heroes of the War of 1812 were the perfect solution.  

Patriotic books, poems, plays, and monuments were produced to honour the heroism of Sir Isaac Brock, Tecumseh, Laura Secord and Charles-Michel de Salaberry.  They were all held up as role models for Canadians to follow.  This resonates in our national fabric even today.  To women activists, Secord was even more important.  While fighting for women’s right to attend university and vote, Journalist Sarah Anne Curzon was taken by Secord’s strength of character.  Who wasn’t? 

After all in 1860, eighty-five year old Secord bravely challenged the male establishment and made sure she was counted among the veterans of 1812.  Travelling by cart, she had shown up at a clerk’s office in Niagara-on-the-lake to sign, with other veterans, a message to the visiting Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII).   Initially resistive, the clerk was put in his place by the determined Secord and her signature was allowed.  The local newspaper supported her action and the Prince was so taken by her gesture that, upon his return to England, a sizeable sum of money of granted to Secord for her wartime service.

Curzon wrote extensively about Secord throughout the closing decades of the 19th century.   Her point in doing so was to show that Canadian women had also patriotically served Canada in 1812, and that women were just as qualified as men to be historians.    Curzon’s interest in the war continued to grow and in 1890 she called for “the erection of a monument for the heroes of the War of 1812.” 

Women's Rights Activist Sarah Anne Curzon championed female access to a University education.
Her daughter would become one of the first women to graduate from the University of Toronto

Until this point, monuments in Canada had been confined to honouring specific people, the most significant one being to Sir Isaac Brock.  The Canadian attachment to Brock was very real from the start - not some fabrication or myth.   Upon the war’s conclusion, the Upper Canadian Parliament immediately approved the building of a monument to their fallen Lieutenant-Governor.   A massive stone tower built on Queenston Heights overlooking the Niagara River, Brock’s Monument soon became a target for those wishing a republican path for Canada.  In 1840, a huge explosion of gunpowder at the base of the tower broke the stillness of the majestic spot. It was Canada’s first terrorist attack.  However, unlike the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001, Brock’s tower monument did not collapse.  Still the structure was declared unsound.

The public outcry was swift.  Led by the Speaker of Upper Canada’s House of Assembly, Allan Napier MacNab, a group of Canadians demanded the tower be replaced with an even greater monument.  Public donations soon flowed in, principally from the militia and native communities of the province.  MacNab, a veteran of 1812 himself, continued to lead the reconstruction effort.  In Parliament, MacNab got passed Canada’s first anti-terrorism law outlining punishments for anyone attempting to blow up the monument again.


“The blood of our militia and our valiant Indian allies was freely shed, and mingled with the blood of the regular soldiers with whom they fought and died side by side in the defence of Canada… Every drop of blood shed, every life lost in that eventful struggle, did but cement more strongly attachment to the soil and fidelity to the Crown…” – Allan Napier MacNab, Premier of Canada, 1859.


While Premier of Canada (1854-6), MacNab expanded his view on why the new Brock Monument was being constructed.   In 1859, thousands listened as MacNab inaugurated the monument to the memory of Brock, and “those who fell by his side upon the battlefield, and through them to the imperishable memory of all who fell in defence of Canada.”  In essence he wanted people to consider the monument an “emblem of a nation’s gratitude” to all 1812 Veterans.  De Salaberry’s son was present, further underlining MacNab’s intent.  While MacNab said it was “one of the proudest and happiest days of my life”, his more inclusive view did not stick.  Canadians viewed it solely as a monument to Brock.

Did the Canadian government really have a responsibility to 1812 veterans?  Yes.   After Confederation in 1867, the Dominion of Canada assumed responsibility of 1812 veteran pensions from the provinces.  This responsibility was expanded by a Liberal Government in 1877 when pensions were extended to all 1812 veterans, not just those who had been wounded. So how Canada treats its veterans today is very much connected to its historic responsibilities towards the veterans of 1812.

Canadian attempts to recognize 1812 veterans in other ways created a string of failures.  During the war itself, the Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada was established to provide warm clothing to the troops, and help the widows and orphans of dead militiamen.   After the war, with the government covering pensions to widows, the charity focussed itself on producing the “Upper Canada Preserved” medal for serving militiamen.  However not enough medals could be made to meet the demand so they were never issued.  In a controversial move, all the medals manufactured were defaced and sold as bullion in 1840.  Proceeds from the sale went to the Toronto General Hospital.  While a worthy cause, the hospital was not why many Canadians had donated to the charity.

After decades of waiting, a medal was issued in 1847 by the British Parliament for its veterans and to a small fraction of those who had served in the Canadian militia.  Although generous, the medal had not come from those who had benefitted the most by the veteran’s service: the Canadian people.   As time rolled on, Canada’s veterans from North West Rebellions in 1885 and the South African War were granted pensions and honoured with monuments for their efforts and sacrifice.  However by the turn of the 20th century, Canada was still without a national monument to 1812 veterans.  Considering more Canadians died in 1812-15 than in Afghanistan, Korea, South Africa and in the North West combined, the omission was glaring.  With Canadian communities put to the torched, and parts of the population made refugees in 1812, the civilian sacrifice alone justified such an endeavour.

In 1902, the Army and Navy Veterans Association tried to pay this commemorative deficit by building a monument to 1812 soldiers interred at the old Military Burying Ground outside Fort York in Toronto.   Because most of the graves were unmarked, the monument served both as a testament to local 1812 veterans and a sort of grave marker.  Completed in 1907, the monument was almost immediately forgotten about.  Its location was far from other military monuments at Queen’s Park and therefore was left out of celebratory events for veterans.  A century earlier, Brock himself had identified the necessity of placing a monument near where “constant bustle reigns.”   The spot he picked for the Nelson pillar in Montreal is still today a place where multitudes assemble.

Another attempt at a national monument for 1812 was not long in coming.  Before Veterans ceremonies in Toronto on May 25, 1909 Lieutenant-Colonel William Hamilton Merritt announced the idea.  To him, an 1812 national memorial was needed at the Ontario’s legislature to commemorate “the brave men who saved Canada in 1812 to 1814 and who laid deep and strong the foundation stone of this great Dominion.”   Obviously the Harper Government’s claim that “the War of 1812 was a seminal event in the making of our great country” is hardly new.  Surprisingly Merritt was unaware that an 1812 monument had been completed two years earlier in Toronto.  This speaks to the limited success of that endeavour.  


A monument is needed to “the brave men who saved Canada in 1812 to 1814 and who laid deep and strong the foundation stone of this great Dominion.” - Lieutenant-Colonel William Hamilton Merritt, 1909

"The War of 1812 was a seminal event in the making of our great country ...  Events surrounding the 1812-15 armed conflict laid the foundation for Confederation and established the cornerstones of many of our political institutions." -Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 2012


With encouragement from Ontario’s Premier -but no money- Merritt moved forward with his idea as a way to mark the war’s centennial.   With grandiose plans, Merritt petitioned the federal government for financial support in 1912.  This drew criticism from the Ottawa Citizen who deemed Toronto as an inappropriate location for such a monument.  Still confident things would work out, French sculptor Paul Chevré was asked to submit a design for the War of 1812 monument.  Eerily foreshadowing events to come, Chevré chose the Titanic as his means of transportation to North America to present his ideas.  While he survived the ocean liner’s sinking, the plans for the monument shared the same watery fate as the war’s veterans off Newfoundland in 1816.

With no plans and little money, the monument project was sunk.  To salvage the situation, Merritt asked Prime Minister Robert Borden for permission to mount a simple plaque in Parliament’s centre block in Ottawa, commemorating the battles of the War of 1812.  Unveiled in 1913, this plaque survived the fire of 1916 that destroyed the building and is still on a wall in Parliament today.  Unfortunately, like Toronto’s monument near Fort York, few are even aware of its existence.

For the next century Canada focussed its commemorative efforts on designating, marking, preserving and in some cases reconstructing War of 1812 historic sites of national significance.  Scholars turned their attention to de-bunking myths and distortions of facts about the War of 1812.  In doing so, however, the word “myth” became associated with the role of Canadians in the war.  The principal 1812 myth that was dismantled was that farmers with no military training had won the war.  This was untrue.  But trained Canadian regulars (including full-time Canadian militiamen), with their native allies, did play a central role in the conflict’s outcome.

Though called for by generations of Canadians before World War One, the idea of an 1812 national monument was washed away by the waves of commemorative projects for the conflicts of the 20th century.  Luckily over time our national consciousness seems to strive for equity and balance in commemorative efforts.  Therefore in 2012 when the Canadian Government announced a National War of 1812 monument for Parliament Hill, scholars should not have been surprised.  It is an outstanding debt the Canadian people have borne for two centuries.

During the World Wars, the name of De Salaberry and “les héros de Chateauguay” were referred to often in military recruiting drives in Quebec.   He was Quebec’s most popular war hero and had been recognized as such by the province’s Legislature in 1814.  It seems only fitting that a statue of him, along with other prominent historical figures, was included in designs of Quebec’s National Assembly in 1886.  It was these statues that inspired Quebec’s motto “Je me souviens” or “I remember.”

But some Canadians have clearly forgotten the central role 1812 played in the development of our national identity.  In MacLean’s Magazine on March 20, 2013, John Geddes opined the proposed monument was inappropriate for Parliament Hill, especially at its proposed location overlooking the National War Memorial.   On the contrary, it is exactly the right spot. 

Borden’s decision in 1913 to allow Merritt’s plaque on a wall in Parliament does establish a precedent for 1812 on the Hill.  The presence of military monuments and figures at both Ontario’s and Quebec’s legislatures offer further weight to this argument.  With the Canadian Forces perpetuating units from the War of 1812, locating the monument close to the National War Memorial is ideal.  By doing so, the new monument can be included in remembrance events.  Keeping the memory alive of the sacrifice of 1812 veterans is the point.

The Duke of Wellington fought at the time of the War of 1812, and placing the monument beside a street named after him appears appropriate.  It is a memorial to troops he trained and fought with, as well as to Canadian combatants.   The monument being near the Rideau Canal is also noteworthy.  The war had made officials realize the necessity of building the canal system.  Without the canal there would have been no Ottawa to select as Canada’s national capital.  Let us not forget that many of the elements of the Parliament buildings, like the Peace tower and the Memorial Chamber, are to honour our soldier's sacrifices.

In 1812, provincial parliaments created military units that fought and died defending Canada.  The Parliament of Canada inherited that legacy in 1867 when it recognized its legislative responsibility to 1812 veterans.  For 200 years, Canadian legislators have sent troops to fight Canada's battles.  It is requisite Members of Parliament are constantly reminded of the ultimate sacrifice Canadians have made in following their orders.   The 1812 monument is not only suitable for Parliament Hill, it is long overdue.


Canadian Premier Sir Allan MacNab: Veteran and 1812 Advocate

The party Sir John A. Macdonald would eventually lead was born in 1854.  That year Augustin-Nobert Morin’s parti bleu in Canada East and Canada West’s Conservatives lead by Sir Allan Napier MacNab had joined forces and won control of the Legislative Assembly of the united Province of Canada.

Though Morin’s father was a Captain in the Saint-Hyacinthe Militia and had been called up during the American invasion of Lower Canada in November 1812, it is Premier MacNab’s 1812 war record that is most noteworthy (a conflict MacNab in 1815 called “the War in Canada”).  When the American fleet arrived to attack the provincial capital of York (Toronto) on April 27, 1813 fifteen-year-old MacNab was busy with his studies at the Home District School (corner of King and George Streets)  Able to bear a musket, he and some of his classmates were called upon to defend the town.  Whether MacNab was actually engaged against the invaders is unknown.  With the town overrun, MacNab morphed from soldier to refugee. 

Retreating with the surviving troops eastward towards Kingston, MacNab trudged through the cold rain “pouring in torrents” making the road almost impassable.  With only the soaking clothes on his back and little to eat, MacNab’s first military experience was hardly glorious.     After finally arriving in Kingston, military officials were stuck with the problem of figuring out what to do with the young MacNab. 

MacNab’s father had been a lieutenant in the Dragoons of the Queen’s Rangers in the American Revolution, and was known to Lieutenant-Governor Major-General Sir Roger Sheaffe. (his father would also serve as Usher of the Black Rod for the provincial legislature from 1815 to 1830). As a result a midshipman’s position the HMS Wolfe was arranged for MacNab.  A month later, the lake fleet set sail with the young adventurer to attack the American naval base at Sackets Harbor, New York.   Discouraged by the unlikelihood of gaining an officer commission in the Royal Navy, MacNab turned his attention to the army. 

Willing to earn a commission, MacNab was appointed to the British 100th Regiment of Foot as a gentleman volunteer.  This meant he trained, marched and fought with the rank and file, but dined and socialized with the officers.   If MacNab could prove himself a worthy soldier, an officer’s commission was in the offering.

When MacNab and his regiment marched into his birthplace of Niagara-on-the-lake in December 1813, the Upper Canadian town was a smoldering ruin.   The Americans had burnt the community and withdrawn across the river to winter quarters in Fort Niagara and Buffalo, New York.  However a settling of accounts was close at hand.  Under the cover of darkness, MacNab and 100th Foot crossed the river and stormed Fort Niagara, capturing the American garrison.  His commanding officer was quick to single out MacNab for his “great bravery and zeal” in being “amongst the foremost during the attack of the picquets and the assault of the works.”  MacNab finished the month by participating in the attacks on both Black Rock and Buffalo. 

The next month, Governor-General Sir George Prevost awarded MacNab’s valour by recommending him for a commission in Sir Isaac Brock’s old regiment, the 49th Foot.  With a gold epaulet on his shoulder marking his rank as an Ensign in his new regiment, MacNab participated in the campaign against Plattsburgh, New York in 1814.

It is interesting to note that 41 years later in 1855, Morin would be replaced as MacNab’s governing partner by another veteran of the Plattsburgh campaign, Étienne-Paschal Taché.   Together, these two War of 1812 veterans led the Province of Canada and passed sweeping changes to the Militia.   The effects of the Militia Act of 1855 can still be seen in the Canadian Army today and Taché is recognized as the Department of National Defence's first Minister.  It seems only fitting that Taché 's son would author Quebec's motto "Je me souviens" or "I remember".

Alas it was a short-lived partnership.  Distracted by railroad interests and slow to appease growing discontentment within the new party, MacNab was forced aside to make way for a new leader, John A. Macdonald. 


Today MacNab’s home, Dundurn Castle, is a National Historic Site and can be visited in Hamilton, Ontario.  It is only fitting that local artefacts of the War of 1812 are also on display there as part of the Hamilton Military Museum.






Copyright: Access Heritage Inc (formerly The Discriminating General) 2012

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