First Nations role in the War of 1812 ‘critical’

As Canada marks 200 years since the War of 1812, efforts are underway to draw attention to First Nations involvement in the war, too often ignored, Deana Sumanac reports.

The Shawnee chief Tecumseh had gathered 10,000 warriors in what is now southern Ontario in 1812, hoping to unify First Nations peoples into a confederacy with their own land and government.

With Americans pushing aboriginal people off their lands to the south, Tecumseh and his supporters agreed to join the British and Canadian side during the War of 1812. British troops in North America were stretched and the participation of native warriors was a key to defending the country that would later be Canada.

"There's no question that the role of native warriors in the southwest corner of Upper Canada, at Queenston Heights and throughout the War of 1812 is absolutely critical. They were indispensible," says James Laxer, a political science professor at York University.

As Canada marks 200 years since the conflict, there are efforts underway to draw attention to First Nations involvement, which is too often ignored, CBC’s Deana Sumanac reports.

At Fort York, the garrison used to defend the tiny town of York, which later became Toronto, an art installation is telling the stories of natives involved with the war. The Encampment gathered 200 stories of people of all backgrounds and stations in life who were affected by the war and asked artists to create installations based on those stories.

Each exhibit is installed in a tent and the tents fill the grounds of the old fort. More than 30 stories are about aboriginal men and women.

Contributing artist Sarena Johnson,  who is of Cree and Ojibway background, devoted her tent to the story of Tecumseh’s second in command, Stiahta, also known as Roundhead.

People don’t know about native involvement in the war, she  told CBC News.  "I think it's really important for people to realize that First Nations people were an equal partner in what was the beginning of the formation of this country."

One of the War of 1812’s most iconic stories is the tale of Laura Secord, who walked through the night from Queenston Heights to warn the British that the Americans had invaded. A little-known part of that story is that the heroine was lost until she was taken under the wing of local First Nations people and led to the British command.

When the Canadian Children’s Opera Company created a children’s opera based on the Laura Secord story, the writers were keen to include First Nations involvement.

Artistic director Ann Cooper Gay recruited young aboriginal singers and encouraged them to perform in Ojibway, a language she had to learn to bring the production to the stage. Laura’s Cow debuted earlier this month as part of the Luminato festival in Toronto.