In a documentary about the Battle of York that aired on CBC Radio’s Ideas last week, Sandra Shaul, project manager of the City’s War of 1812 bicentennial commemorations, noted she was “intrigued as to why the City of Toronto would want to commemorate a battle that we so badly lost.” She reflected that it might be our city’s nature to celebrate losers (“look at our sports teams”).
But even if the American invaders won on April 27, 1813, thousands of Torontonians turned out exactly 200 years later to show their respect for the British military units and First Nations warriors who took to the battlefield to defend what is now our home.
Many of Saturday’s commemorations honoured the role the First Nations played in the battle. From the symbolic fruit samples distributed during a sunrise ceremony to a round dance at Fort York that closed the ceremonies, the native warriors who served as York’s first line of defence were saluted by their descendants. “We’ve waited for a long time for this moment,” observed Mississaugas of the New Credit Chief Bryan LaForme. “We will no longer be a footnote in Canadian history.” LaForme reflected that if it hadn’t been for the overall efforts of natives during the war, we would be “another star on the Red, White, and Blue.”
The military salutes began with the receipt of new colours by the Royal Canadian Regiment from its colonel-in-chief, Prince Philip. One of the largest military parades in Toronto history followed, with an estimated 1,700 members of the Canadian Forces marching from Queen’s Park to Fort York. (Military demonstrations and processions were once a staple of Toronto life—they figured in holiday celebrations during the Victorian era, and were used to send off deployments of troops during World War I.)
While the parade wound through the core, over 500 people followed the path of the Battle of York during a two-hour walk from the Palais Royale to the fort. Heritage Toronto unveiled a new commemorative plaque at the American landing site, one of five stops where historians described the main stages of the battle.
Holding up a “Brown Bess” standard-issue British musket, Richard Feltoe used the backdrop of the Fort Rouillé monument to describe military equipment and techniques used during the battle. He explained how troops on both sides lined up in rows to fire volleys at each other, creating dense clouds of smoke. Bright uniforms and high hats allowed opponents to see each other amidst the fog of musket fire, ensuring continued carnage.
At the site of the Western Battery near the Princes’ Gates, Ken Purvis talked about the antique equipment used by the British during the battle. The oldest artillery gun, which is displayed at Fort York, dated back to Oliver Cromwell and the English republic of the 1650s. (For perspective, imagine American Civil War equipment deployed in modern conflict.) Purvis also performed, on fife, the tune the advancing American forces played as they approached Fort York: “Yankee Doodle,” a song the British later used to taunt them while parading prisoners in Montreal.
Also mentioned on the walk was the last letter American Brigadier General Zebulon Pike wrote to his wife Clarissa. Written the night before the invasion, Pike hinted that the battle might cause his demise: “I shall dedicate these last moments to you, my love, and tomorrow throw all other ideas but my country to the wind.” When Fort York’s grand ammunition magazine exploded, a boulder crushed Pike’s spine. It was reported that the dying Pike was presented with a captured British flag, which he used as a pillow. One source reported that upon receiving the flag, Pike whispered, “I die contented.”
At Fort York, the public mingled with period re-enactors and modern military. Visitors perused displays of objects ranging from wampum belts to pre-painless-dentistry surgical instruments. The ceremonies included the unveiling of three plaques to be placed in a new visitor centre, scheduled to open next year: two were refurbishments of fading bronze plaques installed shortly after the fort converted to a museum in 1934, and the third was a new marker honouring the First Nations.
Our gallery includes images taken throughout the day.
Additional material from Capital in Flames by Robert Malcolmson (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2008).