War of 1812 was more than a soldiers' story.
Published on Saturday June 09, 2012
by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast
Memory itself is contested terrain,” writes Jamie Swift in the introduction to Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety. Swift’s latest book, written with Queen’s University historian Ian McKay, argues that the Canadian government, together with the military and some think-tanks, is attempting to “conscript Canadian history” in order “to establish war as the pith and essence of all Canadian history.” To achieve this goal, the government strategy is to “glorify wars” past and present, the authors argue, and it begins with the commemoration of the War of 1812.
According to Prime Minister Stephen Harper it “was the beginning of a long and proud military history in Canada” that helped define who we are today as a nation.This agenda is in full display in Stouffville, north of Toronto, where Paul Calandra, parliamentary secretary for Canadian Heritage and our Member of Parliament, has proposed a “Freedom of the Town of Whitchurch-Stouffville” event for June 16. We are told it is an opportunity “to commemorate our local history in relation to the War of 1812.” It would include a “traditional military exercise” and parade with CF-18 flybys. The proposal was presented without prior consultation with town councillors or community groups. There was no accompanying staff report. After significant debate the proposal was approved — but not unanimously, as is the requirement in many Canadian municipalities for such recognitions.
The “Freedom of the Town” is a British ceremony that dates back some 300 years, and said to be “one of the most prized honours a community can bestow upon a military unit. Citizens of a municipality express their affection and esteem for a military unit by granting this honour. This gives a unit the privilege of marching through the community with drums beating, colours flying and bayonets fixed.”The proposal claims the Governor General’s Horse Guards “traces its local roots back 200 years in the Whitchurch-Stouffville area,” specifically to Maj. John Button and his light cavalry troop. Calandra’s “Community Report” informs us that Button’s cavalry “played a significant role in Canada’s most formative war,” though there are no primary documents describing its role, if any. We are told that Button hails from “our riding” (Oak Ridges-Markham), though before and during the War of 1812 Button did not live or have land in our riding — let alone in hamlets which make up our town (he is buried in Buttonville).
In a recent media interview, the MP claims the troop was “founded from people within Stouffville and Markham.” Button’s regiment could indeed draw men from the entire region; but our local Legion has a list of only two or three War of 1812 veterans who lived locally prior to the war, and another five or six (total of eight) whose next of kin moved here later in the century. None is explicitly connected to Button’s troops.What’s wrong with this history?The vast majority of men living in the area of Whitchurch-Stouffville at the time were pacifists — war-resistors — who qualified for military exemption under the Militia Act of 1793/1810. Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches, together with Quakers, have more than 200 years of history in and around Whitchurch-Stouffville.
These are Canada’s “historic peace churches,” and their members made up the largest early settler groups of our town. Beginning with the arrival of Mennonite Abraham Stouffer from Pennsylvania in 1805, Whitchurch-Stouffville’s earliest history was predominantly pacifist.For centuries, Mennonites and Brethren in Christ have held the position that the New Testament forbids Christian participation in war and violence. There are many Christians in all denominations who also hold these convictions: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them;” “Love your enemy and do good to those that persecute you.”Fifty members from our churches attended the May 1 council meeting to demonstrate our concern. We indicated appreciation to our MP for his attempt to bring attention to our beautiful town. We were clear that we did not intend to show any disrespect for the sacrifice of more recent veterans from Stouffville. And we were clear that we embrace and celebrate our town’s current diversity.
Our basic point, however, was about memory: This celebration of “Stouffville’s military heritage and role in the War of 1812” significantly distorts Stouffville’s earliest history, and discounts the real contributions of those pacifist settlers to the fabric of Canadian identity — precisely at times of war. They were Canada’s pioneers of conscientious objection to war.Mennonites, Brethren in Christ and Quakers were attracted to settle Upper Canada by Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe’s offer of military exemption. Simcoe was more interested in acquiring desirable settlers with agricultural and community building skills than forcing them to become reluctant soldiers. Ours is not a military heritage.
On the morning of June 16, some members of our churches will gather near the original settlement site on Main Street in Stouffville. You will see us — young and old — wearing buttons with the words: “To remember is to work for PEACE.” As we observe the official commemoration “of our local history in relation to the War of 1812,” we will firmly, but peacefully, “contest the terrain of memory,” and bear witness to a living tradition of nonresistance and peacemaking.
Arnold Neufeldt-Fast is associate academic dean at Tyndale Seminary (Toronto), a resident of Stouffville, and an ordained minister in the Mennonite Church.