I am approaching an age where it simply doesn't pay to wish the future here faster. Still, the looming end of 2012 is a moment devoutly to be wished if only because it will mean the War of 1812 is at long last over.
Sweet relief will come from the cessation of hostility toward the Harper government's inexplicable, tax-paid publicity campaign to lionize the packet of fratricidal Sassenachs who jumped back and forth across an imaginary line firing muskets and waving swords at each other 200 years ago. Canadians will once again peaceably turn on their televisions or amble through the public prints without being affronted by some advertising copy writer's thimble-deep conceptualization of our history.
As a happy signal of the interminable finally winding down, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute will stage a public debate in Ottawa tomorrow night to resolve that "the War of 1812 has been over-hyped." That highly energetic raconteur and wit Jeffrey Simpson, whose novel insights are forever a welcome interlude on the op-ed pages of the Globe and Mail, will range across the topic with York University professor emeritus Jack Granatstein, Canada's living reminder that history requires historians to repeat itself.
Unable to reschedule a long-standing appointment to change the oil on my piano, I have been tardy in reserving a ticket for the festivities. Alas, I understand the crowd may be of such swollen size that it will be impossible to pay at the door. That would be hard luck indeed as I would love to be on hand for the sparks and light.
Yet much as I heartily applaud the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's efforts to stimulate debate in Ottawa (acknowledgement in itself of the woebegone state of Parliament as a place of public oratory), it seems to me there is a single sentence resolution to the resolution. To wit: If ever there has been a sillier State force-fed effort to tell Canadians how they should think about the world and the country around them, I can't remember it and I have lived through some doozies.
The gaping hole in the campaign is its failure to answer that most fundamental question: why this and not something else? Yes, it's the 200th anniversary. And? I have never been susceptible to the journalistic gimmick that a mere zero or five in a date miraculously confers significance on the forgotten. If something matters, it matters as much on its 197th repetition as on its 203rd—no more and no less, before, after or in-between.
So, is it that the 1812 celebration has naught to do with the turning of the calendar page, and everything to do with the federal Conservatives' fetishistic ardor for the Union Jack, Westminster, and other such sepia-toned Britishisms? If true, why not say so forthrightly rather than futzing around with pseudo-historic appeals to an ersatz Canadian patriotism? Why not just declare that, after several decades of decadently denying its origins, English Canada's public character will be restored to the veneration of John Bull and Queen Victoria that was all the rage from Confederation until the appalling snobbery of the Brits toward Canadian servicemen in the Second World War provoked our national gag reflex?
There would be nothing wrong if that were the honest objective. Governments use history for their own purposes on a daily basis. Only the most naïve reactionary progressive could raise a moral hue and cry about re-setting the national myth to the status it enjoyed before those last in power re-shaped it to suit their needs. Of course, were that objective openly admitted, questions might be raised as to why only the sunnier aspects of British imperialism are being celebrated; why, for instance, there is no federally-funded publicity campaign treating us to television advertisements celebrating, oh, I don't know, the British Crown's complicity in the forced starvation and appalling inhumanity toward Irish Catholics aboard Britannia's rat-infested, plague-ridden ships.
The hardest part of the political use of history is facing up to all the hard facts that history serves up. And there is one simple, demonstrable fact that all the glorias of the Conservative government for the War of 1812 can't camouflage. It is the sheer number of Canadian journalists slavering this very minute over coverage of American Election Day. Unimaginable volumes of information on the U.S. vote are being churned out for Canadians by Canadians through every imaginable medium, all leading to one consistent, inescapable conclusion: It's over. They won.