There was a war in 1812? Really?

The Harper government has been highlighting a war with our American neighbours 200 years ago, but the relevance of commemorating the event seemed lost on almost all of those who participated in a comprehensive survey for National Defence.

The poll, conducted annually, measures impressions of the Canadian military, its missions, equipment and important events.

Few people who took part in the survey, and in related focus groups, were aware of the anniversary "and even fewer could identify the War of 1812 by name," said the research conducted by Phoenix Strategic Perspectives Inc.

"Typically, no more than one or two participants in each group were aware that this year is the bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812, and these people tended to deduce this with simple arithmetic.

"From the year, 1812, they made the logical leap to the War of 1812. Most focus group participants had no prior awareness of this anniversary."

That may be bad news for the Harper government, which has invested as much as $28 million in historical re-enactments, television commercials, museum exhibits, a $60 commemorative coin, and even a mobile app for smart phones.

Poll, focus groups early in anniversary year

The telephone poll of 1,520 people was conducted in February and March this year, while the focus groups were conducted in January and February.

The report revealed that even in areas where the war was fought — specifically Ontario's Niagara Region — awareness remained foggy.

"In St. Catharines, which is geographically close to where some significant events of the War of 1812 took place, awareness of the 200th anniversary was higher, but still uneven and not widespread," said the document, released Tuesday by the federal government.

Once the discussion got going about the war, those surveyed generally agreed that marking historical events is a good idea, but "fewer focus group participants could clearly articulate why celebrating or marking such events is important."

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Erin Mitchell, wearing the uniform of New Brunswick's 104th Regiment of Foot, was helping tourists understand the War of 1812 along Halifax's waterfront last month. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The findings also suggested Canadians may be uncomfortable celebrating wars, or specific battles and would rather focus on recalling the sacrifices of soldiers.

"While they acknowledged marking historical events is important, they felt that these type of celebrations need to be modest in scale," said the 84-page report.

"For example, Remembrance Day celebrations are fine, but commemorating individual battles was seen to be excessive."

That may also be bad news for the government, which recently commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Second World War raid on Dieppe, France, and is looking ahead to plans to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge.

'We were born out of conflict': MacKay

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who recently presented battle honours at Toronto's Fort York to some of the regiments that fought 200 years ago, said the series of celebrations are meant to raise awareness and appreciation for the history.

"I'm hopeful this effort, and these honours will not be overlooked," MacKay said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

"It's really meant to allow Canadians to reflect on a number of things, not the least of which (is) how fortunate we are as country, and the fact we were born out conflict; that so much of what we have today shouldn't be taken for granted. Our history could have been much different."

The Conservatives have argued that the war was an under-appreciated event and that the U.S. invasion of Canada paved the way for Confederation in 1867.

The Phoenix Strategic Perspectives poll also showed that awareness of the military and what it is doing has declined considerably, continuing a trend that began in 2008, but accelerated with the army's withdrawal from combat in Kandahar last year.

Just what role the Forces should play in the future once again remains an open question.

"For the first time since 2008, a larger proportion of Canadians feel that the priority of the Canadian Forces should be domestic (42 per cent) rather than international (37 per cent)," said the study.

"In terms of its roles in Canada, Canadians most closely associate the CF with responding to natural disasters."

The poll results are considered accurate to within plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Phoenix Strategic Perspectives was paid $135,000 for the poll and focus-group work.