Why is Canada naming its warships after U.S. defeats?

12/29/2013 12:00 AM

12/27/2013 6:25 PM

Warships from the U.S. Navy will someday be sailing alongside the Royal Canadian Navy supply ships HMCS Queenston and HMCS Chateauguay, perhaps on a NATO exercise or a humanitarian relief mission. That might get awkward if any historically minded American sailors notice that Queenston and Chateauguay are battles in which Canada defeated America in the War of 1812.

Yo, Canada, what’s the deal?

Yes, America’s good-natured neighbor to the north is naming its newest naval vessels after battles i which Canadians trounced U.S. invaders. The Battle of Queenston Heights, on Oct. 13, 1812, saw an outnumbered force of 1,300 British regulars, Canadian militiamen and Mohawk irregulars repel a poorly organized attempt by 3,500 U.S. regulars and militiamen to cross the Niagara River. The Battle of Chateauguay, on Oct. 26, 1813, was another embarrassing U.S. defeat, when 1,600 British and Canadian forces beat back 2,600 Americans attempting to capture Montreal.

“The Government of Canada has named the new Joint Support Ships (JSS) to commemorate the War of 1812, in recognition of the achievements and sacrifices made by those early Canadians who fought and died in these significant battles of Queenston Heights and Chateauguay,” said Canadian Navy spokeswoman Lt. Jennifer Fidler in an email to Foreign Policy. “The War of 1812 was a defining moment that contributed to shaping our identity as Canadians and ultimately our existence as a country. It laid the foundation for Confederation and the cornerstones of our political institutions.”

Historians may quibble: Since Canada was a British colony rather than a nation in 1812, then technically the war was fought between Great Britain and the United States, and the glory belongs to the British. But history is no match for patriotic fervor.

“These two key victories helped ensure our independent development in what was then British North America, leading to the eventual achievement of Canadian nationhood and a mutually respectful relationship with the United States of America,” Fidler said.

The HMCS Queenston and Chateauguay, which together will cost about $2.4 billion, are scheduled to enter service in 2019. They are designed to replace older Canadian Navy replenishment ships. They are the first vessels to be named after U.S. defeats by Canada, but they may not be the last. “If an additional Joint Support Ships vessel is constructed, the names of other prominent War of 1812 battles will be considered,” noted Fidler.

Not surprisingly, the naming of the ships comes after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government sought last year to heartily commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. However, polls suggest the festivities did not exactly stoke patriotic fires.

If Americans are irritated by Canada’s actions, our northern friends have a fair riposte: We’re only giving you a taste of your own medicine. The United States has never been shy about boasting of its victories. British sailors must sail alongside current U.S. warships such as the USS Bunker Hill, USS Cowpens, and the USS Lake Champlain. At least the cruiser USS Yorktown has been retired. And the Japanese have to put up with the cruiser USS Leyte Gulf and the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, the Germans with the USS Normandy and the Italians USS Anzio – and I’m sure the Vietnamese will look forward to a port visit from the cruiser USS Hue City. Not even domestic enemies are spared: Confederate nostalgists can grit their teeth over the USS Gettysburg and USS Vicksburg.

Perhaps the only nations that can’t name their ships after famous victories are the former Axis powers. Germany would find it impolitic to name a ship the Denmark Strait. The same goes for Japan. Will we ever see a Japanese warship named the Pearl Harbor? Maybe in a couple hundred years.

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