Saturday, May 05, 2012

1812 -- controversial after all these years

In September, the Department of History at Nipissing University will be sponsoring a symposium on the War of 1812 in context.  I brought this up originally because I thought that professional historians based in Canada should create an opportunity to discuss a historical event of such obvious importance.

I was surprised when one of my colleagues said he wasn't sure that he wanted to be involved, because the bicentennial was being used by the current government to promote a militaristic view of Canada's past, in line with its militaristic view of Canada's present.

It seems, though, that my colleague's view is not an isolated one, and that officially sponsored celebration of the war is already generating pushback from people who identify with a long-established anti-war tradition.   And when I say "anti-war" I mean not just any war, but the War of 1812 in particular.  Today saw an article in the Globe and Mail about controversy over celebrations in Stouffville in York Region just north of Toronto:

North of Toronto, in Stouffville, a group of people who belong to pacifist churches are asking their MP to tone down a June event tied to the bicentennial. They say it doesn’t accurately reflect the history of the town, which was founded by Mennonites who conscientiously objected to war.It’s an affront to a truthful telling of that history,” said Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, a Mennonite ordained minister and associate academic dean at Tyndale Seminary.

The pushback in Stouffville is part of a movement to tell another side of the war’s story: those who didn’t fight and were proud of it.
Mr. Neufeldt-Fast represented people from Stouffville’s Mennonite, Quaker and Brethren in Christ churches when he spoke out against the bicentennial event at a council meeting earlier this week.
The town council voted 4-2 to approve Conservative MP Paul Calandra’s plan for a traditional Freedom of the City military march to the town hall. His plan also includes a parade and a request for CF-18 fly-by.
Mr. Neufeldt-Fast said he’s not opposed to commemorating the bicentennial of the war, which affected all of Upper Canada. What he’s opposed to, he said, is the suggestion that the town’s past is rooted in the military rather than pacifism. “It shows, actually, a degree of ignorance of our historical origins,” he said.
Part of what swayed pacifists to move from the U.S. to Upper Canada was the Militia Act, which allowed people who could prove they belonged to peace churches to be exempt from war if they paid a tax, according to Laureen Harder-Gissing, the archivist for the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.
Clyde Smith, one of the two Stouffville councillors to vote against the bicentennial plan, said it was troubling to have to side either with his MP or the descendants of those who founded the community. Ideally, there would have been more time to find a compromise, he said, but that wasn’t an option.
“We were forced to make a choice,” he said. “I couldn’t support an event that was going to be divisive and offend a large number of people in our community.”
I have studied the fascinating history of Pennsylvania peace-churches that resisted involvement in the American Revolution on precisely the issues of pacifism, religious liberty and constitutional government, and I knew there was and is a strong connection between Pennsylvania and Ontario peace-churches, but this controversy about the history of Upper Canada has caught me completely by surprise.  Who would have thought that this old conflict would resurrect from local roots?

Image:  the Temple in Sharon, Ont.  Not Stouffville but part of the unique ecclesiastical history of York Region.

1 comment:

  1. In late January I attended a play in Fort Erie set in a local tavern around Christmas 1811. The drums of war are sounding and various actors represent different points of view playing real people who were there in 1811. Americans, Indians, Upper Canada business men, and a widowed Mother of four sons, etc. They also included a pacifist preacher. His lines could have been better but it did let the audience know that there was such a POV. It was a good play and consistently sold out.