ST. CATHARINES – This is the fourth in a five-part series on Niagara and the War of 1812
It’s a war where picking a winner is a towering task indeed.
On paper, the War of 1812 ended with everything status quo. After more than two years of fighting, both the United States and Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent, reverting the shared borders between the U.S. and the colonies of Canada back to where they were before the war.
But even a truce can be seen as a win, as QMI Agency Niagara found when reporters took the question to both sides of the border.
“I would say Canada and Britain won,” said Robert Lauzonis, of Youngstown, N.Y. “Otherwise, we would be over there. Otherwise it would be Toronto, U.S.A., not Toronto, Canada.”
Then there’s Joe Pater. Originally from the U.S. but now living in Kingston, Pater said he didn’t see a clear winner.
“No one won,” he said. “Neither country ended up with any extra territory.”
Pater’s wife, Beth, didn’t see a victor, either: “There were far too many deaths,” she said.
“The natives lost. They lost the most.”
Sanborn, N.Y. resident Joanne Reynolds thought differently.
“I assume (America) ended up winning it,” she said.
“They don’t own our country. They didn’t take it.”
So who won?
Technically no one — but both Canada and the fledgling U.S. reaped benefits, say academics and 1812 experts.
“It clearly was a Canadian victory,” said Brian Merrett, CEO of the Niagara 1812 Bicentennial Legacy Council.
He called the war a first shot at unity for the colonies that would later become Canada.
But he said both sides got a good deal, thanks to the 200 years of peace that followed.
There’s a case for benefits on the American side, too, he said. Merrett said while 1812 is seen as a “forgotten war” in the U.S., it’s viewed as the first test of their nationhood.
“The Canadians figured they won the war, the Americans figured it was a tie and the British didn’t give a damn,” he said.
On paper, the war was a draw, said Brock University assistant history professor Renee Lafferty, albeit one with perks for Canada.
“I don’t think, in the end, it was a clear cut victory for anyone,” Lafferty said in an e-mail.
She said the Treaty of Ghent, signed at Christmas 1814, flipped the situation back to where it started, so there’s no way to determine who won conventionally.
“But I would say, in seriousness, that no one ‘won,’” she said. “It was a bloody, divisive, destructive conflict … that tore families and communities apart.”
And it was especially devastating to First Nations people, she said.
It’s still a critical conflict, though.
Lafferty said the war tends to vanish in the shadow of bigger events like the First World War’s Battle of Vimy Ridge. But in the days after the war, Canadians felt a sense of triumph. She said that drew Canada closer to Britain and forestalled the possibility of the colonies being annexed peacefully by the U.S. sometime down the line.
Canadians, she said, found inspiration for a national back story.
But, she adds, “I think what we lost was a sense of friendship and common cause with the United States.”
The long-undefended border aside, she said there has always been an air of suspicion between Canada and the U.S.
The War of 1812 doesn’t get a lot of love on the American side, said Andrew Nicholls, a history professor at Buffalo State College.
He said the war tends to get lost, sandwiched as it was between the sheer weight and drama of the Revolutionary War and then the Civil War.
He said 1812 was less dramatic and more complicated in its causes. But he said it’s also one of the first times the fledgling United States stepped up and hung in a fight with a world superpower, in this case Britain.
“It is looked at as almost a coming-of-age for the country,” he said.
Nicholls, originally from Midland, Ont., said most historians would say neither Canada nor the U.S. won the war.
But he said First Nations people lost big time, because the war left the Americans expanding westward. That meant the idea of a native buffer state in the northwest flew out the window.
The war did leave lasting impacts, though.
“One thing that it did, initially at least, is it created some certainty in the U.S. in terms of the northern border,” he said. He said out of that came the common border with Canada.
And, he said, the war gave the U.S. its national anthem when Francis Scott Key penned the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, inspired by a moment from the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 when British ships bombarded Fort McHenry.
Nicholls said the war gets plenty of play in Niagara and Washington, D.C., among other areas touched by it. But, he said, “I would venture to say if you were to walk down the streets of Tulsa, Okla. or Denver or something like that and ask about the War of 1812, they’d probably give you a blank stare.”
Lafferty said the war is seen differently outside of Niagara and Ontario.
But she said it also had huge ramifications in the founding of the Canada we know.
She said the war reinforced our ties to Britain, and they persist today.
“Given that fears of annexation by the U.S. … were a major impetus behind Confederation, and given that 1812 still provided ‘proof’ that annexation was possible, you might say … that the War of 1812 was like Canada’s own war of independence,” she said.
David Contangelo, a tour guide from Niagara Falls, N.Y., took a similar position to Merrett’s.
“Actually, the British won. The Canadians won that war,” he said.
He said he has seen it in many Canadian writings about the conflict.
After 65 years in Canada, Toronto resident Oleh Iwanusiw, originally from Ukraine, had a more nuanced stance on the war. He figured neither side really wanted victory.
“I think this was a fight or scrimmage that no one really wanted to win or lose. More of a save-the-face type of situation,” he said.
“I think that war … is probably the cause of why (our relations with the U.S.) are doing so well. Hell, it’s now 200 years.”
For Leslie Puddicombe, of Binbrook, though, there was no doubt.
“The Canadians,” she said emphatically when asked who won.
She said her family owned land near Winona, Ont. during the war, and the Americans fled past their farmstead. She said they even stopped to drink from their well.
It’s easier for historian Kevin Oliver to see both sides. Raised in Canada, he lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. now, but he didn’t take either side.
“I don’t think anyone won the war,” he said, noting everything went back to how it was before the war, after the Treaty of Ghent was signed.
Still, said Oliver, there was a lot in it for Canada.
“I guess you can say in an indirect way Canada won the war, because the seeds of Canadian nationalism were planted in that war.”