The Battle of York was fought on April 27, 1813 when an American naval fleet carrying a force of about 1500 troops under Zebulon Pike landed on the shore of Lake Ontario west of the town. The defending British force at Fort York abandoned both it and the nearby town. When American troops took over York, many acts of arson and looting took place, and the Upper Canadian parliament buildings were burned to the ground. The later British attack on Washington DC and the burning of the White House was said to be in retaliation for the arson at York. In all, 132 people were killed and over 300 wounded on both sides during the action.
So what has Mr. Coupland given the good burghers of Toronto to commemorate this event? A styrofoam & resin installation depicting two huge toy soldiers - a victorious British soldier looming over a toppled American.
The work is described in a November 3 National Post article thus:
The two soldiers are made of styrofoam over a steel armature, then blanketed with a resin hardcoat. They were built in Calgary, and transported on an open air flatbed truck to Toronto. The Monument to the War of 1812 cost about $500,000, and was commissioned by Malibu Investments, which developed the Malibu at Harbourfront. The sculpture is located on its front steps.
What the hell? Surely this is a joke. Someone from the Christmas-window display team at the downtown Bay store is using up some leftover Christmas decorations for a seasonal display, right? This can't be a monument to an actual war where people died to protect their country, can it?
Well, here's what our betters have to say about it (again from the National Post):
Deputy Mayor of Toronto Joe Pantalone said he is not worried about offending American tourists.“It’s really a statement about the nature of war, as much as about the War of 1812,” Mr. Pantalone said after the launch. “It’s not in my personal interpretation, it would not be that one side won and one side lost, it’s just that both sides would be affected by it, and both sides moved on.”
Toronto historian Ron Fletcher, who was at the unveiling, said his first reaction was that the monument was comical. Then he worried if it trivialized the war.
But he noted that the plaque attached to the monument describes “two abandoned toy soldiers.”
“Now that you see the word abandoned you get a little sympathy towards them, which is a different attitude than, isn’t’ this disrespectful. I kind of like controversial art because it makes you think. A lot of war memorials don’t make you think ... what does the War of 1812 mean to me?”
Former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson called the sculpture a “wonderful thing, by not only a great visual artist, but writer.”
Mr. Coupland himself had this to say about his masterpiece:
“I grew up thinking the Americans lost the War of 1812, and it turns out there’s this creeping revisionism happening. Americans are saying maybe we didn’t lose. Maybe we won it,” Mr. Coupland told a crowd of onlookers gathered to see his first permanent installation... The monument is not meant to rub Americans’ noses in their loss — rather “gently” remind people of what actually happened during the War of 1812 “because history is a fluid notion and it can be rewritten.”
Well, I'm glad we cleared that up. Excuse me, Mr. Coupland, but didn't we lose the Battle of York? If this thing is installed a few blocks away from the site of the garrison that failed to protect the city from destruction by an invading American army, isn't it a bit, oh, I don't know, arrogant to show a British soldier victorious over a fallen American? I guess history is a fluid notion and it can be rewritten after all.
You know, the War of 1812 used to be a big deal in Canada. We used to take pride in the fact that the British army and Canadian militia held the attacking Americans off for almost three years and preserved Canada as an independent nation. The men who died in that war used to be considered heroic figures. We used to erect monuments to them that were, well, monumental and heroic. Take, for example, the monument in Queenston, Ontario to Major General Isaac Brock who died on October 13 1812 while defending the Niagara frontier from an American attack at the Battle of Queenston Heights. A huge statue of Brock, uplifted arm pointing across the river at the threat from across the border, surmounts an enormous classical column guarded by stands of armour. The bones of Brock himself and his aide Lieutenant Colonel Macdonell are interred in a crypt in the base.
The current monument is in fact the second one on the site - the original was considered so important that it was blown up in 1840 by anti-British terrorists. The re-burial of Brock's remains in the second monument was done with great pomp and ceremony, as this contemporary poster attests:
Other War of 1812 monuments show the reverence we once had for this period in our history. Consider this magnificent tower commemorating the Battle of Stoney Creek:
Or this memorial to the Battle of Fort Erie:
Or this simple but elegant obelisk at the site of the Battle of Lundy's Lane:
So this is Toronto's contribution to commemorate the upcoming 200th anniversary of the Battle of York? What an embarassment. And what do Americans in Toronto think? A spokesperson from the American Consulate politely told the press that the Consulate had no comment on the monument, but said the U.S. government is committed to freedom of speech. Well, what else can one say?
(Thanks to one of my two regular readers, Ted at Edward Michael George who e-mailed me to say "not only is it mind-bogglingly ugly, not only is it graspingly anti-American, it is clearly meant to belittle the historical role of the military. Words fail.")