Canadian racism exposed in War of 1812’s history

Prior to the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, I attended the final day of a three-day history symposium at Fort York on Oct. 9 to hear Ontario’s former Lt.-Governor James Bartleman speak on the subject of how best to celebrate the forthcoming 2012 bicentennial of the War of 1812.

Fort York image courtesy the City of Toronto

Fort York image courtesy the City of Toronto

The article I wrote for the Toronto Community News on Bartleman’s speech is available here.

The “Sense of Place and Heritage Trails: Realizing the War of 1812 Bicentennial” conference at the Cultural and Heritage Tourism Symposium 2009 was organized by Centennial College and presented in association with the City of Toronto at the historic site, Oct. 7-9. Kudos to the College’s organizers for holding the event at Fort York.

Bartleman served as an ambassador in Canada’s Foreign Service for 35 years prior to serving as Ontario’s Lt.-Gov. Simply put, the retired diplomat gave the audience a two-pronged history lesson on the War of 1812 and the subsequent racism this country’s aboriginal population has endured since the European powers-that-be decided the natives were no longer useful militarily.

“The popular view of this war is that . . . we preserved Canada from the worst of all possible fates: becoming part of the United States. I guess there’s some truth to that but as we’re looking at the forthcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812, I imagine you’d want to avoid the fate of the 250th anniversary of Quebec City,” he said, referring to the holding of a reenactment during that city’s celebrations of what was effectively the defeat of the French on one of the most historic sites in French Canada. Needless to say, the event offended many French Canadians across Quebec.

He explained the main participants in the War of 1812 were British, American, and native peoples. As he told the heritage and tourism professionals in attendance, when we look at the commemoration of the War of 1812, we must look at it carefully because “its their histories specifically which is going to be examined and put under the microscope,” he said. “If we’re careful, this can be a fantastic commemoration of the War of 1812 but we have to recognize the reality of history in Canada.”

Bartleman served as Ontario’s Lt.-Gov. from 2002-2007. His mother hails from the Chippewas of Rama First Nation. During his enthralling hour-long speech, he detailed his poor upbringing in Port Carling, Ontario (Muskoka region) and gave a brief history of the aboriginal contribution to the historic two-year war that essentially helped establish Canada and the province of Ontario as we know it today.

He also provided an overview of racism in Canada during the 1960s; how its natural ugliness was shamelessly and publicly juxtaposed to the great disparity that was the hypocrisy of what was being preached in schools and churches at that time.

“We have this mythology that we were a type of light unto the nation: Canadians are better than those evil Americans. And that’s the type of mythology we have to look at very carefully . . . we have this image of ourselves that does not accord with reality,” he said. “The reality, as I saw it as someone with a native mother and a white father was one of marginalization and exclusion in those early years . . . I did not feel as though as I was a part of Canadian society.”

The history of Canada’s treatment of its native population is what Bartleman called “the greatest social justice issue facing Canada today and it’s going to get worse”.

“I would hope that in anything that is drawn up for the commemoration of the War of 1812 that it also looks at the failed hopes of the native people for whom the War of 1812 was the last time they were almost equal to the Europeans,” he added.


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