June 18 marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the War of 1812, a conflict that may well be the last time most Americans thought seriously about Canada.
On this date President James Madison declared war against Great Britain and directed U.S. forces to attack British troops in Canada. The expectation, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, was that winning the war was "a mere matter of marching." The unfinished business of the Revolutionary War could be resolved with a few well-timed thrusts north of the border.
As it turned out, the thrusts were neither well-timed — word of the U.S. declaration of war reached British troops before their American counterparts along the border — nor well-executed. After three undistinguished years the two sides decided to call the whole thing off, with very little to show for it except a number of looted border settlements and a slightly charred White House. The American historian Richard Hofstadter once labeled the entire enterprise "dreary and unproductive."
Two hundred years later Canadians are celebrating what they generally portray as a victory over the Americans. After all, the reasoning goes, Americans started the war to absorb Canada, and they failed.
The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is spending $28 million to commemorate the conflict, even as his conservative government slashes spending elsewhere, including the closing of five Canadian consulates in the U.S. The Canadian postal service has even issued two stamps commemorating heroes from the British side.
In the U.S., by contrast, most Americans are only dimly aware that anything special is worth commemorating, unless you live near the border with Canada. And even there, the response can be tepid.
Bills to set up a statewide bicentennial commission in New York, where much of the war's action took place, have been repeatedly vetoed in Albany as an unjustifiable expenditure of public funds.
National amnesia is nothing new in America. The Mexican-American War, to which all or part of 10 U.S. states owe their existence, registers even lower in the national consciousness. Awareness of Canada in general among Americans fails to register beyond a vague, favorable glow.
But given the importance of Canada to the United States, thinking about it once every 200 years would seem to be justified.
Canada is the largest market for U.S. exports in the world, absorbing nearly 20 percent of them at a time when we are trying to double what we sell abroad. The resurgent automobile industry leads the way. So integrated is our bilateral car market that a made-in-North-America automobile crosses the border between the U.S. and Canada seven times in its assembly.
The story is even more dramatic in energy. Canada now supplies more than a quarter of the oil the United States imports, and nearly 90 percent of our imported natural gas. Hydro-Quebec signed a 26-year deal with Vermont to provide cheap, renewable hydropower and would like to sell even more to U.S. customers.
Canadian and American military personnel sit cheek-to-jowl in the North American Aerospace Defense Command, in Colorado Springs, Colo., protecting the skies of North America. A Canadian general directed the air defense of North America on 9/11, and nearly 300 U.S.-bound planes landed at Canadian airports that day when the U.S. closed its airspace. Canadian troops took on one of the toughest missions in Kandahar province in Afghanistan before transitioning to a training role this year.
This is a far cry from the fight of 1812.
Given the unrest in Europe and common challenges from Asia to the Middle East, Canada stands out as a relatively quiet but immensely reliable and profitable partner, one that might warrant a close look more frequently.
The War of 1812 lasted three years. But our partnership and friendship have lasted two centuries.
Hopefully we will find a time to mark that as well.
Stephen R. Kelly is Visiting Professor of the Practice of Public Policy and Associate Director of the Center for Canadian Studies. This commentary was originally published in The Chicago Tribune on June 17, 2012.