I returned recently from an eventful four-day trip to Toronto. The heat was blistering, and my feet were blistered, from many hours of walking through the downtown.
I saw much that was noteworthy including a chance encounter (I use the word loosely) with the Queen but the most interesting sight was a little-known war memorial, unveiled in November 2008.
It commemorates the war of 1812, in which Canada fended off an invading army from the United States, and recognizes the tremendous role played by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (RNR) in that three-year war. And it was designed by Douglas Coupland, artist, writer and ber-cool author of Generation X, JPod and Generation A.
Thats right, the RNR played an important role in defending Canada more than 130 years before we joined that country.
I learned about the monument through my son, Ken, who was with me on the trip (to see Iron Maiden in concert). A friend had told him about the monument, about which I was skeptical until confirming its existence through an Internet search. We set out on foot and found the monument, in front of a condo tower at Bathurst and Fleet streets, just south of Fort York and near the lakefront.
The four-metre-high monument is constructed of Styrofoam over a steel skeleton, and protected with a thick coat of resin. Commissioned by Malibu Investments, the company that owns the condo, the sculpture is whimsical, and starkly symbolic, depicting two toy soldiers one lying on its back, representing the defeated Americans, and the other, the victor, standing proud and upright.
A plaque at the base of the monument reads: Two abandoned toy soldiers pay tribute to Torontos history in this artwork. Without Fort York there would have been no Canada the British would have lost Canada to the Americans in the War of 1812, and Canada would have been absorbed into the United States.
There is no reference on the plaque to Newfoundland's participation in the war. However, the letters RNR, for Royal Newfoundland Regiment, appear in the sculpture, on the backpack of the victorious solder (see inset). To see a larger version of the above photo, please click here.
According to this news story, Coupland designed the monument to offset the creeping revisionism he has observed, regarding the War of 1812.
I've grown up and a lot of people have grown up thinking 'Oh, Americans lost that one didn't they? Coupland said. But once I began getting involved in the project and doing research, I began noticing that the Americans are now starting to change history and they're saying, Well actually we won that, or, Actually, we didn't lose or whatever. So its a war monument but its also an incitement for people to remember whats going on in the present as well as the past.
The article fails to explain WHY Coupland chose a Newfoundland soldier to represent the Canadian side, but an Internet search does provide answers.
Canada did not become a dominion until 1867. Prior to that, it was known as Upper and Lower Canada, both British Colonies, as was Newfoundland. And this web site seems to give a pretty thorough accounting of the RNRs involvement in the War of 1812.
In a nutshell, Britains resources were stretched to the limit by its war with France, when, in 1795, it formed the Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry, also known as the RNR, to help defend Englands oldest colony. The RNR numbered 683 men when, in 1805, it sailed for Nova Scotia to begin 10 years of defending Canada. The regiment was posted to Kingston when war broke out with the Americans in 1812.
The RNR distinguished itself several times and suffered injury and death during these hostilities. Heres an excerpt from the site referenced above:
Elements of the Royal Newfoundlanders soon became involved in action around Detroit, as the Americans attempted to mount an attack on Upper Canada. The detachment under Captain Mockler, serving as seamen aboard the General Hunter and the Queen Charlotte, were brought ashore in August to form a core of regulars (in) the militia force attacking Detroit. The Newfoundlanders won a special commendation from General Brock on the fall of Detroit.
By the end of 1812, the regiment was scattered in detachments to Quebec, Prescott, Kingston, Fort George, and York. The largest group of the regiment was a detachment of 111 all ranks, which formed part of the garrison of Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River. The Americans attacked the fort on the night of 26-27 May 1813.
The grenadier company of the Royal Newfoundlanders formed part of the small force of 200 defenders at the point of the original assault-landings. Attacked in overwhelming strength, the British force gradually fell back to Fort George; the grenadier company lost twenty-one men killed and twelve wounded, including both its officers.
A further 100 men of the regiment served as marines with the Lake Erie Squadron under the command of Captain Robert Barclay, R.N. These Newfoundlanders suffered fourteen killed and twenty-five wounded - 28 per cent of the total British casualties - in the naval Battle of Lake Erie fought on 10 September 1813.
In 1814, a detachment of Newfoundlanders carried out a remarkable operation that demonstrated their capability and determination both ashore and on the water. Two companies were ordered to reinforce the isolated British post of Michilimackinac. This involved building a fleet of small open boats and sailing them from Georgian Bay to the northwestern end of Lake Huron. The Royal Newfoundlanders reached their destination in a month.
Early in August, the post was attacked by troops landed from an American naval squadron. The garrison not only beat off the attack, but the Newfoundlanders and a naval detachment took to the water in four small boats and captured the American ships Tigress and Scorpion in a daring night operation.
I find it intriguing, that Newfoundland soldiers played such a pivotal role in defending Canada, 55 years before Confederation and 137 years before we signed on. How that settles out with you whether you think it was a noble or foolish endeavour will probably depend very much on your own political outlook.
One things for sure: you never know what you will find, poking about the streets of downtown Toronto.