Thursday, October 13, 2011

How the Canadian Identity Was REALLY Forged: The Pig War Of San Juan Island

The Harper Government's sudden glorification of  the War of 1812 is propagandist bunk, though for the most part harmless, I suppose.  The problem with turning 1812 into an integral part of the Canadian brand is that, by all measures, it was a boring war.  There were no Ninjas, and most of the soldiers who died, died of dysentery.  It is hard to elevate a conflict which has as its iconic image John Constable's "Three Infantrymen Fighting For Spot On Latrine".  It just is.

Not that there weren't a few glorious moments.  For instance, during the Battle Of Fort York, a heavily outnumbered English force lured their American opponents into the apparently abandoned fort by leaving a BBQ full of cheese burgers in plain sight.  As the hungry yankees applied condiments, the brits fired the base magazine, thus blowing their enemy into smithereens.  One of the casualties was U.S. commander Zebulon Pike, whose right big toe was discovered years later atop the Colorado mountain that now bears his name.

But, for the most part, a 3rd rate war all around.

I think that a conflict much more illustrative of the Canuck national character is the  San Juan Boundary Dispute or, as we West Coasters call it--who have tales of the dispute drilled into us at a young age, and so carry these legends as part of our cultural DNA--The Pig War of 1859

From Wiki:

On June 15, 1859, exactly thirteen years after the adoption of the Oregon Treaty, the ambiguity [in the treaty terms] led to direct conflict. Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer who had moved onto the island claiming rights to live there under the Donation Land Claim Act, found a large black pig rooting in his garden.[2][5][7] He had found the pig eating his tubers. This was not the first occurrence. Cutlar was so upset that he took aim and shot the pig, killing it. It turned out that the pig was owned by an Irishman, Charles Griffin, who was employed by the Hudson's Bay Company to run the sheep ranch.[2][5][7] He also owned several pigs which he allowed to roam freely. The two had lived in peace until this incident. Cutlar offered $10 to Griffin to compensate for the pig, but Griffin was unsatisfied with this offer and demanded $100. Following this reply, Cutlar believed he should not have to pay for the pig because the pig had been trespassing on his land. (A possibly apocryphal story claims Cutlar said to Griffin, "It was eating my potatoes". Griffin replied, "It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig"[7]). When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar, American settlers called for military protection.

As any B.C. boy can tell you, this "official" story contains several inaccuracies.  For one thing, the "tubers" were not potatoes, they were hallucinogenic mushrooms of the kind that grow throughout the Gulf islands.  And it was the little Irishman (they're all little) Charles Cutler who was caught in the process of harvesting them.  In fact the pig, "Alfie", heroically threw himself in front of the musket shot so as to spare his master.  Hence the $100 demand.  This was clearly one damn fine pig.

In any case, American and English garrisons arrived, took up positions on opposite sides of the island, and perpared for battle.  After several days, however, a steady diet of Psilocybe semilanceata drove them all to the realization that getting killed over a pig, no matter how heroic the pig might have been, was stupid.  So they gave over the task of solving this particular U.S./BNA border dispute to their respective diplomats.  In the years that followed, as they waited for the results of a negotiated settlement, the two garrisons spent their days "dropping baldies", running around naked, and swimming with Orcas.  If that sounds like it might get a bit repetitive, remember that the Grateful Dead hadn't been invented yet.

And, over a decade later when The Treaty of Washington was finally signed, America was granted the whole of San Juan Island.  Our side acquiesced politely, after some muffled whining, thus establishing the Canadian tradition for excessive politeness and muffled whining.

In any case, The Pig War seems infinitely more commemerable than 1812 and, if we need another war monument in Ottawa, surely a bronze of Alfie the pig would be a suitable addition.  I may launch a Facebook petition promoting the idea, or not.  Depends what I'm up to on the weekend.


UU4077 said...

If not for the War of 1812 (in North America, of course), there wouldn't be a "White" House.

sassy said...

a bronze of Alfie the pig

Works for me :)

Jason Holborn said...

Hmm interesting, never heard of this.