When did we burn Toronto?

Here’s a history quiz:  When did U.S. soldiers raze the city of Toronto?

a) Never

b) I don’t know, or I don’t care

c) April 27, 1813

If you chose the first, you would be right, since without even pointing out that it wasn’t really a city, U.S. soldiers burned a settlement, then known as York.  But we did burn it to the ground, nonetheless, and it was re-built and then renamed Toronto 20 years later.

If you chose the second, you might be right as well, possibly shrugging your shoulders out of indifference, but more likely in disbelief that the United States ever burned the capital of what was then Upper Canada (as distinct from, you guessed it, Lower Canada, both named for the geographic location on the St. Lawrence.)

The last answer, though, is the correct one:  200 years ago, on April 27, 1813.   I probably would have given either of the first two answers, and I used to teach U.S. history, and specifically the War of 1812, during which this attack occurred.

Sure, I taught the fact that the British burned down the White House and other parts of Washington DC, in 1814.  Many remember enough history to know of Dolly Madison saving the portrait of George Washington with the White House in flames.   More well-known is the attack weeks later on Ft. McHenry in Baltimore when a young Frances Scott Key saw the flag following a night of bombardment, so moved that he penned what would become our national anthem.  Part of the lore from that war was Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans, weeks after a peace treaty had been signed in Paris.

But, the fact that the U.S. burned and looted York never came up.  It didn’t come up even in the context that the British attack on Washington came a year later was in retaliation for York.   We don’t remember, but you know who does.

Canada.  In fact, Canada is remembering that war in a national way, with a fair amount of controversy (with the accent over the second syllable up north: con-TRA-ve-see.)   Canada wasn’t even a country then, but still part of British Colonial America.  It wouldn’t become independent until 1867, and even then it maintained its ties to the British Monarchy, to this day still the head of government in Canada.

The conscious choice to commemorate that war stems not from the fact that it repelled U.S. war aims of extending the northern border (OK maybe a little.)  Rather, Canadians see this war more as a critical step in the establishment of their nation.  Since there was no rebellion against the British, no Declaration of Independence, Canadians have little in the founding of their nation in 1867 to unify them.  So, they have decided that their country might see the bicentennial of this war, as a commemoration to instill national pride, rather than their language, or their province and region, or even their affiliation with the part of the “states” which lay across the border. If you think that doesn’t exist, did you know that the Premier of Nova Scotia had, within hours of the attack on the Boston Marathon, pledged $50,000 to Boston Children’s Hospital?

Four Canadian Heroes of War of 1812.  Photo: Government of Canada

Four Canadian Heroes of War of 1812. Photo: Government of Canada

The controversy with the commemoration lies in the Federal Government setting aside $28 million for public commemorations, a sum deemed too large and even frivolous in a recession.  The money has been set aside for commemorative events, for museum exhibitions, for media publicity.  The official emblem of the bicentennial speaks to the desire to unify the country.  It is a seal with four heroes from the war: a British General, a French-Canadian officer, a woman who warned the British troops of an attack, and a Shawnee chief.  (Guess the names; they are listed below.)

What’s striking is the contrast with the commemoration in the U.S. of the War of 1812.  What commemoration?  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo  vetoed any appropriation for marking the bicentennial, but a few states did approve spending, and as is normally done on this side of the border, there is more private than public funding.  Still, it would not be surprising if most have seen nothing related the War of 1812 these past two years.

The Canadians are choosing to remember, and we have chosen to forget.  The U.S. Consul General in Toronto can’t forget.  He will attend the official ceremony marking the bicentennial of the attack on York.  Care to join him, facing the Canadians who remember that attack?

(From upper right corner, clockwise: Major General Sir Isaac Brock, French officer Charles de Salaberry, Laura Secord, and Tecumseh)

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