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Battle of York "remembrance"–a Tory farce

John Bell

April 27, 2013

“The Battle of York–a day for all Torontonians to remember.” That’s the headline of the Our Toronto newsletter recently found in my mailbox. As someone who has gone to some pains to learn about the War of 1812, if only to inoculate myself against Tory-inspired propaganda, I couldn’t agree more. We should remember.
Too bad the planned commemoration of the occupation of York has little or nothing to do with the real events of April 1813.
On April 27, 1813, 14 US warships carrying 1,700 soldiers entered what is now Toronto Harbour. They were led by General Zebulon Pike, one of the few competent American commanding officers. The town was of little strategic importance, but after a string of embarrassing defeats in the summer and fall of 1812, Washington was hungry for any kind of a victory.
Advancing American riflemen dispersed a half-hearted resistance from a small group of Mississaugas (on whose unceded land the town was built) and quickly overpowered the front lines of General Roger Sheaffe’s British regulars. Sheaffe did the only sensible thing, ordering a quick retreat and marching his forces eastward to the safety of Kingston.
Before leaving Sheaffe ordered the destruction of the only two military assets in the town, burning a nearly-completed warship in the shipyards and blowing up the underground powder magazine. The explosion rattled windows thirty miles away, and sent tons of stone and wood debris into the air. A large stone struck General Pike a mortal blow; despite their victory, the explosion resulted in US casualties numbering about 320, almost twice as many as suffered by the British.
Town officials, led by arch-Tory Bishop John Strachan, rushed to sign a formal surrender promising to forbid the looting of private property, but the top-ranking US officer, General Henry Dearborn, hesitated for a day before signing it. In the intervening time, the town was thoroughly looted.
Dearborn ordered all military facilities burned, but his enthusiastic troops also burned the parliament buildings. US soldiers maintained they discovered a scalp hanging in the legislature, prompting their actions. This is no doubt a fiction, the offending hairpiece probably being a ceremonial powdered wig. However the story was carried back to Washington and spread far and wide, supposed proof that Britain was encouraging atrocities by First Nations fighters.
Those are the facts that every history of the event agrees on. But there was more to the “day all Torontonians should remember”.
Many Canadian histories assert that the York militia was part of the defence. Donald R. Hickey, author of Don’t Give Up the Ship: Myths of the War of 1812 has this to say:              
“Some popular accounts have suggested that Canadian militia played a significant role in the defense of York and that 40 militiamen were killed in the explosion, but this is untrue. The militiamen were held back by their commanding officer, and only 6 died in the engagement.”
As in most War of 1812 battles, local militias were judged less than reliable. Most, like the majority of the colony’s population were US-born, moving to Canada only to take advantage of free land and low taxes.
As for the looting of York, it is well recorded that many inhabitants of York, including those released from jail, enthusiastically joined in the plunder. When the US soldiers returned to their ships many local inhabitants helped them carry their booty.
Locals, including many militia members lined up to be formally “paroled”. As was the custom of the time, a parolee could not become a combatant unless his side traded an equal parolee in exchange for him. This was an excellent way of avoiding being called up for military duty.
So if we were to celebrate this anniversary with any accuracy, we would run all the police and military out of town and go for a massive shoplifting spree on Queen Street.
Unfortunately, the Tory government in cooperation with the City of Toronto decided to go another way. They are turning a minor military and political debacle into a celebration of militarism. Under the guise of remembering history they are rewriting it.
The centre piece of this militaristic farce will be a ceremony at the Ontario Legislature to award a new Regimental Colour to the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment. A “Colour” is a commemorative flag celebrating an engagement involving the Regiment.
The problem is that the Royal Canadian Regiment did not exist in 1813. It was created in 1883 as the Infantry School Corps, and renamed the RCR in 1893. Its connection to the Battle of York is entirely fictitious, but not without precedent. In 2012 the RCR received honours for the Battle of Detroit, another War of 1812 engagement that it had nothing to do with.
Not to let facts get in the way of a good old military love-in, the Tories are shipping in several thousand soldiers and sailors to troop through the centre of the city, marching bands in tow, their brand new and entirely bogus Regimental Colours fluttering in the breeze.
As befits the majesty of it all, RHR Prince Philip, the head royal bigot is being whisked in to preside over the whole farce.
The real history of the War of 1812, and the looting of York (for to call it a battle is itself a gross exaggeration) reminds us that ordinary people had little interest in the clash of empires. Mostly they wanted to be left alone to mind their farms, do their jobs and live their lives in peace.
It also reminds us of the lengths Stephen Harper’s Tory propaganda machine will go to turn Canada’s real history into a militaristic fantasy.

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