11/10/2011 04:30 EST | Updated 01/09/2012 05:12 EST

War Of 1812: Canada's 'Forgotten Vets' Will Get Their Due On Bicentennial


TORONTO - Scattered plaques and occasional monuments are often the only Canadian reminders of a nearly three-year war fought two centuries ago that saw an empire and an upstart nation struggle for dominance on both sea and land.

And those tokens of remembrance commemorating the War of 1812 usually offer very little detail about the thousands of soldiers who perished while waging war on what has come to be known as Canadian soil.

They are the "forgotten vets," said George Chisholm, whose great-great-grandfather and namesake fought in the Battle of Queenston Heights and other skirmishes throughout the war before eventually settling in present-day Burlington, Ont.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we're 200-year plus friends with our neighbours to the south," Chisholm said from his home in nearby Oakville.

"There's a feeling that we don't really want to insult them."

Soldiers who died in clashes such as Queenston Heights and naval skirmishes along the Atlantic coast hailed from both Britain and the colony that was christened Canada more than 50 years later, but little was ever done to commemorate their loss.

"The War of 1812 has often been called unimportant and we have forgotten it to a large extent," said John Warburton, whose fourth great-grandfather was a veteran.

"Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea and France were all faraway foreign lands; the Militiamen and boys of York and Niagara fought in, and gave their lives for, their homeland. When they lost, their wives and children were threatened; their homes were ransacked or burned. That is why it was a war of consequence and worthy of our remembrance."

Canada appears to agree as it prepares to mark the bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812 and launch remembrance initiatives designed to give the conflict a more prominent place in Canadian history.

The federal government and the provinces are poised to invest millions in educational campaigns, new monuments, festivals, battle re-enactments and local projects designed to honour the war that some say paved the way for Canada's independence.

Historians say it's little wonder Canadians have been reluctant to embrace the war's legacy until recently.

The conflict was particularly hard to incorporate into the folklore of an emerging nation eager to shed ties with its colonial past, said Robert Fraser, history professor at the University of Toronto and executive officer at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

"The period from the 1780s through to about the 1850s is arguably one of the most under-studied periods in Canadian history, and part of the reason for that is it doesn't fit comfortably with a modern liberal democracy," Fraser said.

"The elites there were proponents of a counter-revolutionary society."

A war fought to maintain a way of life dominated by a monarchy did not fit well with vision of the Fathers of Confederation, he said, so very little effort was made to adopt the story of the war into the national narrative.

The story was particularly easy to gloss over, Fraser added, since the battles took place in concentrated pockets spread out over a large territory and were fought predominantly by regulars in the British army.

The war also marked a particularly dark time in history. Those accused of betraying the British cause were routinely tried for treason, and killed in mass executions once found guilty, he said.

But there are clear signs that the federal Conservatives aren't going to be squeamish about commemorating the war.

The Ministry of Canadian Heritage has unveiled a four-year plan to honour the conflict, featuring a cross-country education campaign and an official month of commemoration slated for October 2012.

Ontario, home to many of the most notable battles of the war, will spend $32 million to improve historical sites, with $1.4 million earmarked to help local groups with their bicentennial projects, according to the province's Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

The War of 1812 played a defining role in Canadian history that ought not be neglected, said Fraser.

"Had the Americans conquered, Canada's past would have been different," he said. "That didn't happen, so it is important."