10/12/2011 05:37 EDT | Updated 12/12/2011 05:12 EST

War Of 1812 Bicentennial: Tories Spending Big To Become Party Of Patriotism

OTTAWA - The public's knowledge of the War of 1812 might be a bit sketchy, but Canadians might not easily forget who's banging the drum for the bicentennial.

Parliamentary secretary Pierre Poilievre was marched in to a news conference Wednesday at the Canadian War Museum by a piper and percussionist in period costume during. He was just one of seven Conservative ministers and MPs who fanned out across the country to re-announce what the Heritage Minister had already done with much fanfare at southern Ontario's Fort George a day earlier.

The attention and resources devoted to the conflict's bicentennial — at least $28 million in spending according to the last budget — is part of a particular brand of Canadian nationalism that political observers say Prime Minister Stephen Harper has embraced and tried to sell during his time in power.

Tom Flanagan, who served as Harper's chief of staff until 2004, said the patriotic themes pressed by the prime minister diverge from those favoured by the Liberals — multiculturalism, bilingualism, and peacekeeping for example.

"I remember him saying years ago that the Conservative party in any country ought to be the party of patriotism, that the Liberals in Canada had appropriated that role, and that the Conservatives had to win it back," said Flanagan, a professor at the University of Calgary.

"But the Canadian version of patriotism, in distinction to the Liberals, emphasizes our British heritage. All sorts of things, both great and small, fit into the strategy."

The military, the monarchy, the North, Canadian history, and sports are some of the touchstones that come up repeatedly in the Conservative government's policy decisions, addresses, Speeches from the Throne and photo opportunities.

"In 2011, Canada marked some important milestones — our combat mission in Afghanistan came to an end, Parks Canada...celebrated 100 years and their royal highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge made their very first visit to Canada," Poilievre said.

"Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the Selkirk settlement, the 60th anniversary of her Majesty's ascension to the throne and the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup. In the next few years leading up to the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017 we will celebrate many other significant anniversaries, events that define our country's great history and who we are as Canadians."

The Conservative government has also made direct policy changes to reflect their vision of what's worth celebrating and highlighting as part of the Canadian identity.

This summer, Canadian missions abroad were directed to display portraits of the Queen, and a "Sovereign's Wall" was designated inside the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Navy and Air Force had the "Royal" designation restored to their names. Earlier this month, the heritage minister backed a private member's bill that would make it illegal to prevent the flying of the flag.

Bob Plamondon, an author of books on the Conservative party and Canadian prime ministers, said a penchant for the past is not necessarily unique to Harper or even to Conservatives.

He points out that John Diefenbaker slept in Sir John A. Macdonald's bed and took his caucus on regular visits to the first PM's grave site. Brian Mulroney was a great student of Canadian Conservative history, often quoting Macdonald and Diefenbaker. And Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien was a open admirer of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Plamondon adds that the Liberals took plenty of action over their years in power to put their stamp on history — Toronto's Pearson airport and Montreal's Trudeau airport as just two examples.

"(History) is part of nation building, it's part of national unity, a sense of ourselves," said Plamondon. "In the context of a multicultural society, it's still important to remind Canadians of the origins of the country, the battles that were fought...and what that says about Canada today."

How a particular history or nationalism is framed could be difficult to navigate. Reverence for the Queen leaves many Quebecers cold. The government has dubbed the 1812 bicentennial, "The fight for Canada," and has argued without the result of the war, "Quebec's French-speaking identity would not exist."

Michel Sarra-Bournet, history professor at the University of Montreal, said the statements leave the impression that the British had the best interests of francophones at heart.

"That's a good one," said Sarra-Bournet.

"In 1840, the Act of Union eliminated French in institutions. The British Empire had a vague desire for assimilation. On that point, London has nothing to teach the Americans."