Andrew Pregnall: Reflections on “Through the looking glass: Canadian identity and the War of 1812”

For this Thursday’s class, I read the Sjolander article “Through the Looking Glass: Canadian Identity and the War of 1812.” To start with, the article was not at all what I was expecting. Based on the title, I thought the article would be about how an emerging Canadian identity led to or affected the War of 1812, or I thought the article would be about how the War of 1812 created or fostered a sense of Canadian identity during and immediately after the war’s conclusion.

Instead, Sjolander made an argument about how the modern-day Canadian conservative party used the bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812 to foster a new nationalistic Canadian “warrior identity” to push back agianst the Liberal party’s “peacekeeping identity” and brand of liberal internationalism. Specifically, Sjolander argues that Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada presented the War of 1812 as a unifying event in Canadian history in which, to quote Harper, “Aboriginal peoples, local and volunteer militias, and English and French-speaking regiments fight together to save Canada from American invasion.”

Wow. As Sjolander elucidates, this statement has all the elements of nationalistic identity reconstruction. There are people from diverse backgrounds (French Canadian! English Canadian! Aboriginal!) coming together (Unity!) to fight against a common enemy (Americans!). After all, if the First Nations can fight alongside the colonial English Canadians as well and French Canadians to defeat the Americans after those three groups long history of conflict, then Canada must truly be a unified place. Sarcasm aside, there are notable tones of colonialism and imperialism present in Harper’s remarks because they both imply and explicitly state (to a degree) that the only reason these groups were fighting was for Canada. Realistically, however, each of these groups were fighting against the Americans for their own distinct reason, and perhaps more importantly, each of these groups did not benefit equally from the muddy victory of the Americans. As we discussed in class, the First Nations clearly got the short end of the stick when it came to the War of 1812, and Harper’s remarks erase this history and perpetuate a system of native erasure to promote a nationalistic identity.

Now, this explains the core “what” of Sjolander’s article, but it does not explain the core “why” of her article. To understand why the Canadian Conservative party would use the War of 1812 to recast the Canadian national identity, we must understand the issue through both a domestic and an international lens. Domestically, Sjolander argues, the value in creating a nationalistic Canadian identity by presenting Aboriginal peoples and English and Francophone Canadians as unified “Canadians” during the War of 1812 is that it removes the responsibility from the Canadian government to grapple with its complicated past while simultaneously presenting its current domestic agenda as a noble cause for all Canadian people. In other (non-academic) words, it creates domestic Sheeple making it easier for the party in control to effect its agenda. Internationally, this rhetoric perpetuates Canadian values around the world because it presents them as just and noble – implying that the rest of the world such follow and implement these values too. Additionally, on an international level, Sjolander argues that celebrating the bicentennial of a Canadian war on moralistic grounds (e.g. defeating the invading Americans as a unified Canada) has the effect of justifying Canada’s current or future involvement in war because it shows that Canadians were “born out of war.”

Ultimately, Sjolander’s article is multifaceted, nuanced, complicated, and hard to encapsulate in the span of a blog post, but, at its core, it demonstrates how people of all political affiliations engage in “identity politics” to achieve their goals.

References:

Sjolander, Claire Turenne. “Through the looking glass: Canadian identity and the War of 1812.” International Journal 69, no. 2 (2014): 152+. Academic OneFile (accessed September 29, 2017). http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=viva_vpi&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA372250364&sid=summon&asid=21cdc2f3d7fc0640eb53c77b8f4fdd46.

Word Count: 640

 

  1 comment for “Andrew Pregnall: Reflections on “Through the looking glass: Canadian identity and the War of 1812”

  1. hryan
    October 5, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    “Wow” is right. This article brings up a lot of ethical questions about history and national identity. All nations use their history to construct their sense of identity, but according to Sjolander, Harper used Canada’s history to build a specific type of identity. Is this a moral use of history? Does this “top-down” national identity formation differ from a “bottom-up” one?
    -HR

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