Conservatives draw fire for War of 1812 spending

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is spending more than $28 million on a war that happened 200 years ago, leaving no doubt it takes the War of 1812 bicentennial seriously. But some have questioned the spending in a time of cuts.

Harper government praised for celebrating past, but also questioned

The Battle of Longwoods is fought by re-enactors of the British, American and native fighters from the War of 1812 battle, west of London, Ont., last month. The Battle of Longwoods occured March 4, 1814, as British troops failed to expel American invaders. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is spending more than $28 million on a war that happened 200 years ago, leaving no doubt it takes the War of 1812 bicentennial very seriously.

A special silver dollar coin (which sells for $60), a new national monument, funding for historical re-enactments, upgrades for historic sites, museum exhibits and even a mobile phone app are among the ways taxpayers are supporting the celebration of the anniversary.

The government has been investing in these projects for the last three years and Harper has personally participated in some of the commemorative events. Most recently, he and Prince Charles marked the anniversary at a military ceremony in Toronto last month. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper laughs with Prince Charles at a War of 1812 ceremony at Fort York in Toronto last month during his four-day visit to Canada to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives call the War of 1812 a decisive moment in Canada's history that deserves to be recognized accordingly, but some have questioned the bicentennial's price tag, particularly at a time when the government is slashing spending and laying off public servants.

The government conducted consultations on how to commemorate the 200th anniversary and received more than 150 funding requests, according to Heritage Minister James Moore.

Moore said in an interview that $28 million is a "reasonable amount" to spend on an event that paved the way to Confederation in 1867.


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Interest in the War of 1812 has been building since the government launched its commemoration plans, said Moore, and Canadians are realizing that it is something that should be recognized across the country, not just in the regions where the battles took place.

"It's been very interesting to see how people have reacted so positively to this," he said.

It's fine if people want to debate whether it's money well spent, Moore said, but in his view, "it's an essential role for government to remind Canadians what unites us."

"We'll be better off because of this kind of investment," the British Columbia MP said.

Selective with celebrations?

The Conservative government has commemorated key moments in Canadian history since it came to power in 2006, said Moore, and he gave the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act in 2009 as an example.

The Conservatives weren't as interested, however, in celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in April. The Liberals, the party that created it, criticized the government for doing nothing more than issuing a press release on the occasion.

A War of 1812 exhibit is viewed during a media preview at the National War Museum in Ottawa earlier this week. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The War of 1812 bicentennial is an opportunity to teach Canadians their own history, Moore said, and his government is fully behind it.

"The prime minister is very keen on these kinds of projects that celebrate our past and unite us," he said.

Canadian historian Jack Granatstein said the Conservatives aren't going overboard by spending millions of dollars and that some of the investments help generate tourism and other benefits to the economy.

"If the feds hadn't put money into this there would have been an outcry from every town in the Niagara region, etc. Obviously they had to do it, and I think they've done it reasonably well," he said.

Granatstein is the former head of the Canadian War Museum and the author of several books on Canadian military history.

The emphasis the government has put on the bicentennial is encouraging Canadians to learn some history, said Granatstein, and he doesn't see a downside.

He did suggest, however, that while the government doles out cash with one hand, it's taking away with the other.

National archives funding cut

"This is also a government that's slashing the national archives dramatically and killing the national library by cuts. On the one hand they're good for history and on the other hand they're bad for history — you sometimes wonder if they really know what they're doing," he said.

The U.S. is also marking the bicentennial. OpSail 2012, an event sponsored by the U.S. Congress off the coast of Norfolk, Va., earlier this month, marked the 200th anniversary of both the war and writing of the Star Spangled Banner. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

The budget for Library and Archives Canada was cut by $9.6 million in the recent federal budget and an entire grant program for community archives was eliminated.

There has been some resistance to the federal government's commemoration plans, in places such as Stouffville, north of Toronto. The local MP, Conservative Paul Calandra, recently caught the city council off-guard with a proposal to mark the occasion on June 16 with a "Freedom of the Town" event, which honours a community's military history.

But some members of what are known as the historic peace churches, including the Mennonite Church, say the event doesn't reflect Stouffville's true history — that it was founded by pacifists and war-resisters. 

"If we're going to explore our town's military heritage at that time, well, there wasn't any," said Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, a Mennonite minister who lives in Stouffville.

Mennonites, Brethren in Christ and Quakers from the United States were attracted to the area by Lt.-Gov. John Graves Simcoe's offer of military exemption.

'First conscientious objectors'

"The heritage of this town at that time was that of Canada's first conscientious objectors," Neufeldt-Fast said.

He and members of the churches have pushed back against Calandra's event. Neufeldt-Fast said their intent is not to rain on anyone's parade, but if Stouffville is going to be connected to the War of 1812, "then the story that has to be told is the story of Canada's first conscientious objectors."

He doesn't think the $28 million is justified, but Maj. John R. Grodzinski disagrees.

"I think it is money that is well spent," the War of 1812 expert at Kingston's Royal Military College. "We can argue the merits of where the government allocates its funds but part of its mandate is to educate Canadians on their own country, to maintain the heritage of this country."

Canadian history tends to emphasize what happened around 1867 and beyond but not what happened before, Grodzinski said. He's pleased the government is throwing such a big spotlight on the War of 1812.

"It's helping us preserve our story," he said.


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multiplatform reporter with CBC News in Toronto. She joined the CBC in 2011 and previously worked in the Parliament Hill and Washington bureaus. She has also reported for the CBC from Hong Kong. Meagan started her career as a print reporter in Ottawa.