Following the end of the 7 Years’ War and the conquest of New France, Britain settled in to a long rule as the world’s premiere Empire. Her vast New World holdings provided unimaginable wealth to her coffers and financing the aggressive growth of her empire. Within a few years of the fall of Quebec, the Union Jack was flying over nearly two-thirds of the earth’s land, with huge holdings in Asia minor, Africa and the south Pacific.
In Canada, British rule was relatively benign. The war had been terribly costly in both material and lives. British governors sent by London decided to not stir up the new French subjects in Quebec, and after much debate in the Privy Council, the British government settled on a “two-nation” solution, rather than forced assimilation. Quebec would be allowed to keep its French identity, including its strong ties to the Catholic church, its practice of French civil law (as opposed to British common law) and, most importantly for future events in Canada, its French mother tongue.
The years between the end of the 7 Years’ War in 1763 and the start of the American Revolution in 1774 were peaceful and prosperous for the Canadas. British governance brought elected legislative assemblies and the rule of law. Commerce was unimpeded except for the high taxes and many small communities and the local infrastructure to support them were established in this period in the Maritimes and Quebec, with several small outposts beginning to arise in the “wilds” of what is today Ontario. The fortresses of Halifax, Quebec and Montreal grew into cities with large populations, roads, ports, commerce and economic clout. These three cities became cultural centers in their regions, allowed to prosper and grow under the benign rule of the British crown.
In 1774 the peace was shattered when the American Revolution, which had been slowly boiling over for several years, reached a crescendo and full-scale war erupted once again in the New World. Following the early American victories, the citizens of Nova Scotia joined in the rebellion and representatives from Nova Scotia met with the Continental Congress. They were promised full statehood into a United States of America once the Revolution was over, and George Washington himself promised military support to the Nova Scotia delegates. 1775 that military support was revoked in favour of a strategic offensive into New France. George Washington led an army to Quebec, hoping to seize the city and cut off the St Laurence to British shipping, thus denying Britain’s army reinforcements on the continent. The French citizens, many of whom were former soldiers and officers in the French Army, fought back and a long winter seige of Quebec ensued. Washington’s American rebels made fourteen separate assaults on the high walls of the city but the defenders fought them off. With food and ammunition dwindling and men deserting in droves, Washington was forced to turn away from Quebec, his one offensive into Canada thwarted.
During this time the Nova Scotia rebels were active, seizing vital crossroads, forming “Continental Committees” and generally acting out against the crown. In London, military planners were assembling a vast fleet and a large army to land on the continent and restore order. More than 800 ships of all sizes and 20,000 soldiers plus all their baggage trains and animals were embarked. They were headed straight for Halifax, which planners had chosen to make their continental headquarters for the assault on Washington’s rebel army. Unfortunately for the wild and naive Nova Scotia rebels, the entire might of the British Empire landed in Halifax in 1776.
The Nova Scotia experiment with American continentalism was swiftly put down, and Canada was spared the troubles of the war. The war did leave a lasting legacy on Canada’s development when tens of thousands of Loyalists, escaping persecution from the wild mobs in American cities, flooded into Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and what is today Ontario. They settled along easily-defendable sites on the St Laurence River, creating in Quebec and Ontario what is still known today as “Loyalist Country”. Towns with loyal names such as “Kingston” and “Crown Junction” have today grown into large bustling communities with rich historical ties to their refugee ancestors.
The impact of the Loyalists on Canada’s development cannot be understated. The Loyalists brought with them a renewed faith in the Crown and All Things British. It was the Loyalists, civilized British citizens leading civilized British lives, who turned the wild and unsettled northern lands of the Canadas into thriving civilized provinces modelled after the New England states they had been forced out of. For example, before the American Revolution, barely 2,000 Europeans lived in Upper Canada (today’s Ontario), and those who did were wild, frontier-type people. The few settlements that did exist in this vast forested territory were widely separated and were mostly wooden trading forts.
After the American Revolution Upper Canada had more than 30,000 inhabitants and several large communities, including Kingston, York (present-day Toronto), Bytown (present-day Ottawa) and a host of villages around the southern area between the Great Lakes. This influx of Loyalist refugees drastically altered the very makeup of what had been an unsettled wilderness, and it was Loyalists, who organized themselves into the United Empire Loyalists (a heritage club that still exists today, although now it is mostly involved in philanthropy), who truly created the Canada we know today.
Following the Treaty of Paris and the end of the American Revolution in 1783 the British decided to garrison a large army across the Canadas. The Crown was determined to keep the northern half of the continent, but Loyalist pressure for security played a big part of this decision. As a result, the huge fortress at Halifax, the Citadel, was constructed and a string of forts along the St Laurence were added to the Empire’s might, from Quebec to the border with Detroit (another Loyalist town, Windsor). The Canada’s were re-organized into Provinces for better governance and defence. Upper Canada (Ontario), Lower Canada (Quebec), New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island were all given their own legislatures and their own governors, or Governor-Generals, to act as executives. Each province raised its own militias to work beside the Royal Army redcoats in defence matters. Most importantly, each province was given its own jurisdiction over roads, taxation, trade and education. These important responsibilities helped these five provinces grow strong enough to contemplate Confederation a century later.
The sudden division of the North American continent between rebels (Americans) and Loyalists and Quebecois (those in the Canadas) created a new identity. This identity grew strong immediately after the Revolution, and on street corners in all the provinces, and even in the halls of power in London, the citizens of the Canadas were calling themselves a new name: Canadians.
Throughout the latter-half of the 18th Century and the first few decades of the 19th, most Canadians, as they were now called, were pre-occupied with farming, commerce, settlement and defence. Upper Canada underwent an amazing transformation from a wild backwoods to a settled agricultural and urban hub in a matter of a few decades. More and more immigrants from Europe flooded into the area, lured by cheap land, and the vast forests were cleared to make way for the rich farmlands of southern Ontario that we know today.
In Europe, new conflicts were threatening the peace of the world as the French Revolution in the late 18th Century led to the first overthrow and murder of one of Europe’s leading monarchies. In the vacuum of that Revolution, heavily influenced by the American one, came a little Corsican corporal named Napolean Bonaparte. Napolean, a leader of artillery, quickly rose through the ranks of the brand new Republican Army to eventually command an army, conquer Austria and northern Italy, and crown himself Emporer of France. His conquests went on to include almost the entire European continent and sparked another massive bloody war in Europe.
England, alone and steadfast against Napolean’s new European empire, began to draw troops out of the Canadian provinces for defence of the homeland. As British power on the continent waned, American expansionism grew. American raids into Upper and Lower Canada and New Brunswick increased. American seizures of Canadian ships increased. American arrests of Canadian travellers reached a crescendo, until the British Royal Navy responded by seizing American shipping that ventured into Canadian waters. In 1812, America was given the chance to end the stalemate and seize the whole continent.
In Europe, Napolean was preparing to invade Russia. To do this successfully he needed the pesky British army off his backside, so, recognizing the long-simmering hatred between the Americans and the British, he offered the United States a vast sum of money as well the sale of the Louisiana Territories for dirt cheap, in exchange for an invasion of the Canadas. Napoloean hoped that a threat to Britain’s greatest colony would force her to divert troops away from Europe. America hoped to gain control over the entire continent.
The War of 1812 was a second American attempt to invade Canadian territory. The US was woefully unprepared for a drawn-out war of attrition. President James Madison had assumed that the States would easily seize the Canadian territories and the war would be over. He had greatly underestimated how strongly the Loyalists had fortified the provinces since their exodus thirty years before.
The first American armies crossed the border at several points, most notably at Detroit-Windsor, Niagara Falls and at St Catherines. US General William Hull and a band of 1,000 badly-trained militia quickly seized Windsor, but a strong counter-attack by Canadian Loyalists under British General Isaac Brock and their Indian allies under Tecumseh drove Hull back to Detroit, where he was surrounded and forced to surrender. All of Michigan State fell into Canadian hands.
At Niagara Falls a vicious battle on Queenston Heights ensued. This time blue-coated American regulars went head-to-head with British redcoats and Canadian militia, again under General Brock. The American army was soundly defeated on the Heights with more than 2,000 casualties and forced back across the Niagara River. General Brock was killed by a stray musket ball and became a part of Canadian history and legend.
The American attack through St Catherines met with the same fate and was driven back across the border with heavy casualties. The weakness of the US Army and the surprising strength of the Canadian defences were made apparent. Instead of capturing Upper Canada in a few days, the Unites States had lost nearly 10,000 men and the entire state of Michigan!
Between 1813 and 1814 the United States reorganized and made several more assaults on what the British press were calling “Fortress Canada”. An attack on Montreal was repulsed and the American army sent running in disarray. A large US force did manage to cross Lake Ontario and burned the thriving city of York to the ground, but the Canadians responded by sailing on Royal Navy ships to Washington and burning the American White House down and capturing the city of Baltimore. The Royal Navy heavily blockaded the coast and British frigates kept control of the Great Lakes. In 1815 a British invasion of Louisiana was defeated with heavy British losses, and the war was at a stalemate with neither side able to advance and the politics so messed up that neither side could withdraw.
Napolean was driven out of Russia in 1812 and the Russians captured Paris in 1814. Napolean surrendered and the war in Europe was over. The Treaty of Ghent technically ended the war between the US and Britain, but news of the treaty took a few months to reach Washington so the war on the American Continent continued until early 1815. The Treaty returned Baltimore and Michigan state back to America in exchange for large sums of compensation to the Canadian provinces, including all of Michigan’s ship-building facilities (which were transferred to Upper Canada’s shores).
Many Canadian legends came out of the War of 1812. General Isaac Brock is one of the bigger ones. He has a city named after him (Brockville, deep in Ontario’s Loyalist Country), a University (Brock U, in St Catherines) and a hundred high schools and hospitals named in his honour. There are two dozen statues to the hero of Queenstown Heights in southern Ontario alone, and a big one of him adorns Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Another hero of the War of 1812 is Laura Secord. This young wife of a Canadian officer serving in the British Army witnessed the American crossing of the Niagara River. Knowing that the nearest British units were miles away, young Laura ran throughout the night, through forests and cornfields, dodging American patrols, to her husbands barracks and alerted him that “The Americans are coming!”. Her husband rallied his sleepy garrison and the British army was able to intercept the American force at Queenstown Heights the following morning. Today, Laura Secord has a chain of specialty chocolate stores named after her.
The War of 1812, as it became known, firmly set the modern borders of North America and forged the Canadian identity in fire. From then on the Canadians recognized themselves as significantly different than their American cousins or even their British brethren. Canadians had fought hard and had not only repelled an invasion but had seized American territory. An era of good feeling and basking in a strong Canadian identity followed the War of 1812, and is one of the defining moments of Canadian history that is still celebrated today. The experience of the War, and the ensuing confirmation of a Canadian identity, immediately led to the beginning of talks of confederation between the provinces.
The push for Confederation, among the people, the newspapers, the politicians and the academics would lead to the official birth of the nation of Canada 50 years later.