September 20, 2013

Undecided border battles


---- — So there we were watching one of our favorite Plattsburgh TV news programs on the weekend and on comes a report about a commemoration event for the Battle of Plattsburgh, which the anchor described as one of the decisive clashes of the war. Indeed it was, we who sort-of know our history nodded in agreement, and took a hearty swallow of our strong Canadian beer.

Then the reporter came on and said the U.S. naval victory on Lake Champlain turned the tide and “ ... helped the Americans win the War of 1812.” We nearly spewed our northern ale at the screen. “Say what?” we said, for we the royal Canadian we, that is — have been told since we were babes swaddled in beaver pelt nappies that we — the British troops, that is — whipped (or is it “whupped”) the Yankees.

Interestingly, one of the history buffs cited in the TV report said “ ... with the result of the battle that took place here, we ended up remaining a nation. We are part of the United States, not part of Canada.” And all the while we Canadians were under the illusion the war-mongering Madison was hell-bent on conquering Canada.

That, at least, is the clear impression one gets from the Canadian federal government, which has devoted much attention and considerable resources to commemorating the bicentennial of the war. On his website, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a well-read student of history, invites Canadians to “share in our history and commemorate our proud and brave ancestors who fought and won against enormous odds.” Won.

“In short, the Canada we know today would not exist had the invasions of 1812-15 not been repelled.” Repelled.

So, here we are celebrating the bicentennial of a clash that may be over in terms of muskets and cannons, but lingers on as a discreet war of words.

What is historic fact, though, is that after the loss of thousands of lives and much civil destruction and suffering, the Treaty of Ghent restored the pre-war borders to exactly what they were before the conflict.

The unresolved question of who won the War of 1812 brings to mind a few other, much less bellicose, disputes between Canada and the United States that have been simmering silently over the decades. Let’s take two examples: the invention of the telephone and basketball.

Canadians are quick to claim Alexander Graham Bell as one of their own. He and his clan hailed from Scotland and settled in Brantford, Ontario. That is where Aleck, though employed in Boston, imagined, then performed key experiments that led to the invention of the telephone.

Bell’s famous room-to-room call to Watson happened in Boston, but the world’s first long distance call took place in Brantford. The Bell family homestead in the town is now a museum.

While it’s true Bell Telephone, the corporate entity, was based in the U.S., Bell’s spiritual and creative home for the latter part of his life was in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. He died at his sprawling compound there, and though a plaque on the site notes Bell was “a citizen of the U.S.,” Canadians know his heart was in the Cape Breton highlands.

James Naismith was another son of Scottish immigrants to Canada who made good in the States. He grew up in Ontario, got his degree in physical education at McGill University in Montreal, then got a job with the YMCA in, Springfield, MA. That’s where he came up with the game of Basket Ball, using a peach basket, after several trips back to the drawing board.

The official National Basketball Association website says “(t)he roots of basketball are firmly embedded in Canada,” and, in fact, though the first game was indeed played in the U.S., “at least 10 of the players who participated ... were university students from Quebec.”

Of course, practically speaking, it doesn’t really matter now whether the telephone or basketball are Canadian or American in origin. Still, whether it be an armed conflict or the invention of a game or a gizmo, each side has woven its interpretation of events into its own national story.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at