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Canadian political culture grew out of War of 1812

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THE War of 1812 -- a conflict between Britain and the United States, much of it contested on Canadian soil -- was a decisive event in Canadian history.

The U.S. proved unable to conquer and annex Britain's Upper and Lower Canadian colonies, thus ensuring that Canada would develop as an independent nation within the British imperial orbit.

This summer marks the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the war. Recent years have witnessed a flurry of scholarship on the conflict -- Ontario historian Wesley Turner's 2011 biography of British general Isaac Brock comes to mind -- but it is difficult to imagine a better introduction to the War of 1812 than this account by York University professor of political science James Laxer.

This military and diplomatic history of the War emphasizes the roles played by two inspired leaders on the British and Canadian side: Brock, the commander of the forces of Upper Canada and the head of its civil government; and his ally Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief who joined the British to fight the Americans who were systematically encroaching on native land.

Both Brock and Tecumseh were killed in action during the course of the war.

Laxer is particularly impressed by Tecumseh. The Shawnee chief's bravery and understanding of strategy and tactics made him a formidable warrior. His oratorical skills made him the pre-eminent political leader of his people.

Tecumseh worked tirelessly to forge a vast native confederacy that would form the basis of a native state in North America.

With Tecumseh's death, the confederacy disintegrated, and his dream of a native state became a lost cause.

Laxer explains the causes of the War of 1812. For years, the British Royal Navy was in the habit of interfering with American shipping on the high seas. It would commandeer American vessels and seize any deserters from the Royal Navy that may have been on board.

This practice, known as "impressment," infuriated Americans; it was seen as a violation of American sovereignty.

Another source of tension between the U.S. and Britain was the latter's support for the native peoples in the interior of the North American continent who were resisting the westward movement of American settlement.

Moreover, expansionist American politicians, known as War Hawks, coveted Upper Canada's abundant farmland. These factors prompted America to declare war on Britain in June 1812.

The Americans believed that Canadians would embrace the invading American forces. But Canadian devotion to the British Empire was much stronger than the War Hawks and the American political and military leadership realized.

Indeed, Laxer argues, the war shaped Upper Canada's political culture: loyalty to the British Crown became the highest political virtue.

The war was concluded with the Treaty of Ghent in late 1814. The sheer cost of the war, on both sides, drove the belligerents to seek a settlement.

There was no clear winner, but Canadian independence from the U.S. was cemented.

Laxer has written a superb narrative of the causes, course and legacy of the war of 1812.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Tecumseh and Brock

The War of 1812

By James Laxer

Anansi, 368 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 J8

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