Though not much remembered south of the 49th Parallel, the War of 1812, seminal in the creation of Canada, was marked by alliances between aboriginals and the British. In fact, there are those who say that First Nations were integral to British victory and thus the very existence of Canada.
This weekend officially begins three years of bicentennial celebrations of the conflict in Canada, kicked off with a major ceremony in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the Battle of Queenston was fought. Attended by Governor General David Johnston, the country’s commander in chief and the Crown’s representative in Canada, the events will also honor the role that aboriginals played in the war, a contribution that generally has been left out of history books and curricula.
“Ontario, and probably a good part of the rest of present day Canada, would now be part of the United States were it not for the native warriors who overwhelmingly came to the defense of the British Crown in the first year of the War of 1812–1814,” writes James Bartleman, Chippewas of Rama First Nation and a sixth-generation descendant of an 1812 warrior, in The Globe and Mail.
“When Congress declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812, former president Thomas Jefferson, speaking from his estate at Monticello in Virginia, said ‘the acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.’ Henry Clay, speaker of the House of Representatives, claimed the conquest of Canada could be handled by the militia of Kentucky without any other help.”
With Britain enmeshed in fighting against Napoleon, Bartleman points out, it was left virtually to the First Nations of the area to defend what would become Canada. For many key battles, the aboriginals, fighting alongside sparse British troops, were instrumental in driving back the American invaders. Most notable on that front was the memorable battle led by the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who headed forces so formidable that they frightened the Americans into submission by preying on their fear of scalping.
Some thanks the aboriginals got, though: The ensuing decades brought the residential schools era, the Indian Act and the reserve system as Canada’s thirst for industrial development came to the fore. And that betrayal started at the tail end of the war.
“On April 27, 1813, Ojibwa and Mississauga sharpshooters were left to stop the landing of more than a thousand American soldiers at the Battle of York as the British troops conducted a strategic retreat out of the capital of Upper Canada,” Bartleman writes. “On October 5, 1813, British troops under Major-General Henry Proctor fled the scene of battle at Moraviantown (the Battle of the Thames), leaving behind Tecumseh to be killed and his men to be mauled and eliminated as a fighting force.”
Aboriginals are busy highlighting their role in the conflict and their contribution to Canada’s formation as a nation, both to get their contributions recognized and to draw continued attention to Canada’s origins as a cooperative venture that was supposed to take the best of what each side, aboriginal and European, had to offer, rather than subjugate one set of parties.
The Dakota Whitecap nation in Saskatchewan stands out when it comes to what was then the western frontier. They sent a few hundred fighters, headed by Scottish fur trader Robert Dickson (known as the Red-Haired Man in aboriginal circles), to help capture American installations on Mackinac Island on the western end of Lake Huron, Postmedia News reported. It was the war’s first victory.
The Dakota Sioux still know the War of 1812 as Pahinshashawacikiya, "When The Red Head Begged for Our Help,” Postmedia News said.
"In Western Canada, there's not really a lot of awareness of the War of 1812," Chief Darcy Bear, leader of Whitecap's 600-member community, told Postmedia News. "But it's basically the humble beginnings of our nation. Canada didn't just happen in 1867—turn on a switch and Canada was there. There were actually relationships prior to that, and the British really relied on their First Nations allies."