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 a historically minded American sailor notices that Queenston and Chateauguay are battles where 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 where Canadians trounced U.S. invaders in the War of 1812. 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 a 1,600-strong British and Canadian force defeated 2,600 Americans who were attempting to capture Montreal.
“The Government of Canada has named the new Joint Support Ships 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 of these victories 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 $2.6 billion Canadian (about $2.4 billion U.S.), 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 two ships comes after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government sought last year to heavily commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. However, polls suggest that the festivities did not exactly stoke patriotic fires.
Should Americans feel aggrieved at Canada’s actions, their 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 own 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 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.
Britain and France are more or less friends now, but the British stuck it to the French with the now-retired nuclear submarine HMS Trafalgar.
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 or the Admiral Dönitz. The same goes for Japan. Will we ever see a Japanese warship named the Pearl Harbor?
Michael Peck is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy.