Choosing Sides

This month, we honour all who joined the Armed Forces to protect our rights and freedoms. Our first thoughts are usually of those who served in WWI and WWII; these modern multinational wars took many Canadian lives, but were fought overseas. Yes, there were internment camps on Canadian soil, and citizens on the Home Front played important roles in armament, training and defence, but North America was spared the worst of the hostilities. For this we are grateful. However, we are still experiencing the impacts of earlier, often forgotten, conflicts that were fought on our continent.

We are becoming more aware of our colonial inheritance and the resulting relationships with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. We often overlook, however, the battles that forged Canada and the United States of America. One particular war resulted in the birth of a nation and created a longterm complex interaction between neighbours that illustrates the fundamental characters of two cultures: the American Revolution.

The far-reaching results of the American Revolution were brought home to me through my study of family history. I recently watched some DVDs (borrowed from the public library) of a history/genealogy program called “Finding Your Roots,” in which American celebrities explore their personal family histories in relation to larger world history. A recurring theme was the celebration of ancestors who had fought in the American War of Independence, proudly proclaimed as Patriots. Descendants who can prove their ancestry from a Patriot gain membership in prestigious associations called SAR and DAR (Sons / Daughters of the American Revolution). 

Eventually, the program featured a celebrity (Sally Field) whose ancestor had supported the other side of the Revolution (known in the USA as the Tories), and had suffered the consequences; he was put to death as a traitor to the State of Pennsylvania. His widow and eight children fled to the northern settlement (today’s Ontario) still under the protection of the British Army. There, as the widow of one who had remained faithful to the Crown, she was granted 200 acres of land. She was one of many who immigrated to (what would become) Canada during the period of this conflict.

Canadians also celebrate people who fought in the Revolutionary War and contributed to the founding of our country: the Loyalists. We, too, have an association for those who can trace their lineage back to these esteemed ancestors — the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada (UELAC). You might even say we have gone one better than our southern neighbours, in that the government of the time (Lord Dorchester, Governor-General of British North  America, to be precise) enacted an Order in Council (in 1789) which granted the Loyalists and their descendants the right to add the letters UE after their name, in recognition of service in defence of the “Unity of the Empire.”

Some argue that the traits celebrated by these associations on either side of our modern international border typify the cultures of these two nations. In a book I recently read (The Cowboy Legend: Owen Wister’s Virginian and the Canadian-American Ranching Frontier), John Jennings asserts that the individualistic gun-toting American attitude of overt patriotism which contrasts with the Canadian model of democracy based on loyalty, order, and the rule of law can be traced to this time. He then expands upon this theme and reasons that these fundamental differences in perspective were responsible for the disparate models of interaction with Indigenous Peoples in the western frontiers of our respective nations. An astute assessment, I think.

When confronted with her potentially shameful Tory ancestors, Sally Field was asked to contemplate their reasons for choosing the other, non-Patriot, side. She suggested that it was a “big, mixed up mess” of complex issues rather than a case of simply choosing sides, and that perhaps some people “just didn’t want to take the chance” on change. Her perspective reminds us that war is not always about “Fighting the Ultimate Evil,” as we characterize WWII, nor is it about “Doing Your Part” for the Empire, as was thought during WWI. Sometimes war is about being caught in your own homeland in a violent conflict with neighbours who have chosen a different path.

This month I remember those who struggled to protect our rights and freedoms. And I hope for a world where Peace is the chosen path.

This article was originally printed in The Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.