A little known piece of history.
Let's celebrate 200 years of peace across the border
Michael Urban 4 hrs ago
Unknown to most Canadians, Dec. 24 of this year marks not only Christmas Eve, but also the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent and the end of the War of 1812. This is significant because it means it has been 200 years since armed force was used as a means of resolving disputes between the United States and what would become Canada – with the slight exception of the ill-starred Battle of New Orleans, fought two weeks later but before news of the agreement had crossed the Atlantic.
While many Canadians and Americans are rightfully proud of our shared and undefended border, I suspect many do not grasp just how remarkable these 200 years of peace really are. In reality, Canada and the U.S. have managed one of the most rare and laudable achievements in the history of international politics: a trusting partnership between two independent states in which the use of force, let alone war, has become unthinkable. Indeed, as such relationships are so historically rare, it’s worth taking a moment to inquire into how ours has emerged.
See also:The War of 1812 shaped Canada forever
Trust between partners requires three things: familiarity, positive emotion, and a shared narrative around which expectations can coalesce. Additionally, the emergence of trust also often requires that pre-existing negative preconceptions be dissolved. Such dissolution frequently requires an extraordinary event like a war or other dramatic crisis to knock people out of their routinized and blinkering cognitive routines. Canada and the U.S.’s shift from warring enemies in 1814 to the trusting community of 2014 provides an excellent case study of this process.
While the War of 1812 represented the last use of force between our two countries, fears that the United States desired to conquer Canada persisted for many years and even provided much of the impetus behind Confederation in 1867. And while relations improved significantly in the final third of the 19th century, it should not be forgotten that as late as 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to send in the marines if the Alaska Boundary Dispute was not resolved according to his preferences.
Nonetheless, it was at around the same time that the developments that transformed Canada and the U.S. from rivals, albeit fairly quiescent ones, into trusting friends really got going.
One of the most obvious of these was the expansion of trade. Between 1910 and 1930 the importance of trade with the U.S. to Canada’s economy increased significantly. Before 1910 this trade was worth an average of about 17 per cent of Canada’s GDP. Between 1910 and 1930 it grew to an average of about 25 per cent. This means that one out of every four economic transactions (by value) undertaken by Canadians engaged an American counterparty. As an increasing proportion of each side’s economic activity came to involve the other, it became increasingly difficult for citizens of both countries to see each other as potential enemies.
(A similar process was unfolding in the astounding levels of migration across the border during this time. To take just one example: a full 1.6 per cent of Canada’s 1912 population had moved to Canada from the U.S. in just the preceding year.)
While these and other changes planted the seed of trust by generating familiarity and positive emotion between the two countries, for trust to flower a new positive and unifying narrative capable of displacing the old anti-U.S. suspicions that many Canadians still harbored was also needed. This critical change came with the U.S. entry in the First World War in 1917.
While many Canadians had previously seen the United States as a potentially threatening rival governed by an illiberal mob, the U.S. decision to join the war on Canada’s side – to make the world safe for democracy no less! – provoked an epiphany that enabled Canadians to abandon their prejudices and embrace the U.S. as a dependably peaceful (at least vis-à-vis Canada) and liberal democratic friend. And while widespread adoption of this new perspective was not immediate, by the 1930s war between Canada and the U.S., a real possibility only 30 years earlier, had become unthinkable.
Recreating the War of 1812: peace came 200 years ago on Christmas Eve. © Provided by Toronto Star Recreating the War of 1812: peace came 200 years ago on Christmas Eve.
The 20th century was defined by war and for far too many violence has already tarnished this century. While Canadians have not been immune to these horrors, we have been extremely lucky to live in an exceptionally peaceful North American neighborhood now marking 200 years of peace. If we would like the next 200 years to be as peaceful, we need to ensure that those same things that have enabled our trusting relationship with the United States – familiarity, positive emotion, and a unifying narrative – continue to be reproduced into the future.
Michael Urban is a Visiting Fellow at the Bill Graham Center for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto.
Great post. Canadians and Americans may have differences of opinion on a few issues, but we are always friends.
Well written, IMO, and expressing sentiments with which I agree completely.
- Tom -
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