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Restoring faith in the media

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Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Canada’s Benedict Arnold

Meet Joseph Willcocks, our homegrown traitor from the War of 1812

Michael Valpy

The War of 1812 was an embarrassment to everyone except First Nations participants who fought irreproachably and lost. The Americans were cartoonishly inept; the British colonial military leaders after Brock’s death at Queenston Heights were deficient equally in verve and imagination; and the Upper Canadians whose territory was several times invaded showed an eagerness to surrender that was unworthy, to say the least, of the $30 million provided for bicentennial commemorative purposes by the government of Stephen Harper. Whatever good came out of the war was accidental.

One can only contemplate this historic narrative through a screen of irony: yes, American invaders were repelled but Canada today operates within the American empire. Nevertheless, such overblown attention to dubious events can unearth intriguing gems, bringing us to Joseph Willcocks, whose role in Canadian history has received an unfortunate paucity of attention. The organizers of a scholarly symposium on the war, for example, when asked whether they anticipated any papers being presented on Willcocks, replied coldly, “Not likely.”

Joe Willcocks was Canada’s Benedict Arnold, our Vidkun Quisling, our Lord Haw-Haw, our inhabitant of Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell, our greatest traitor. Yet differently from the members of that tarnished, wicked crew, he acted for a good purpose (insofar as anyone can be confident of having insights into the thinking of a complex, contradictory and emotionally impetuous and volatile man.)

He was a handsome, charming, foolhardy womanizer given to unwise courting and exhibiting flexible morals and a suspected drinking problem. His most influential mentor, Upper Canada Justice Robert Thorpe, said of him that he “did not possess a sufficiency of brains to bait a mouse trap.” He founded Canada’s first, true opposition newspaper and became Canada’s first, real political opposition leader. For all the criticisms of him as an ambitious, crass opportunist, he had a sophisticated ideological critique—the Whig belief that the subject truly loyal to the king will never submit to arbitrary measures—of the oligarchical governing structures of British North America.

In the first year of the war, he was entrusted by General Isaac Brock, Upper Canada’s administrator and military commander, with the single most important objective of the conflict: securing the loyalty and military support of the First Nations people living along what is now Ontario’s Grand River. He fought beside Brock at Queenston Heights and acquitted himself with distinction. In the spring of 1813, he was described as a “zealous loyalist” and was known to dislike Americans and consider them “not an honest people.”

And yet by the summer of 1813, he had crossed the Niagara River, offered his services to the U.S. Army and formed a contingent of disaffected expatriate Upper Canadians known as the Canadian Volunteers. By the winter of 1813, he had become an outstanding military leader on the American side, commanding expeditions to Stoney Creek and Grimsby on the Niagara Peninsula and putting Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) to the torch, been promoted to lieutenant-colonel, and was valued by the Americans for his “zeal, activity and local knowledge” and said to be “surpassed by none in enterprise and bravery.” On September 4, 1814, he was dead, shot by a former neighbour during a military engagement in Fort Erie, Ontario.

He was 41, unmarried. His death was celebrated by the British, welcomed by the Canadians and unmourned by the Americans, who had little liking for a military hero who was not one of their own. He was buried in an unmarked grave near Buffalo.

It is possible, even likely, that behind Willcocks’s seemingly paradoxical behaviour—the buffoonery and earnestness, the self-serving naked ambition and deep, principled political convictions, the loyalty and treason—lies a simple rational explanation: he was who he was, the product of his background and of his times and of being a young, free-thinking male on his own in an unformed and frequently harsh new world.

He came from an upper-class Anglo-Irish family that had gone bankrupt, sold off its ancestral property and become tenants on land that once they had owned. He was 25 at the time of the Irish Rebellion of 1798—a rebellion he did not initially support but later came to understand and accept as a justifiable act against arbitrary authority (although his brother, later knighted, was a British informer on Irish insurgents). In debt himself and without promising job prospects, Willcocks followed a distant cousin, William Willcocks, to York (Toronto), the tiny capital of Upper Canada, in 1800.

The events of the next five years shaped his life.

All, in the beginning, was rosy.

Within two months of his arrival in York, he had become private secretary—through the nepotistic help of William Willcocks—to colonial administrator Peter Russell and moved into his house as a boarder. (Willcocks and Russell Streets sit side by side in the heart of the University of Toronto.) He was granted a choice town lot plus 1,200 acres near to what is now Port Hope. He confided to his diary that “mediocrity is the summit of my ambition” but noted “there are not more than 100 Persons of Consequence in the Whole Province,” many of whom he numbered as his intimates.

He partied, sledded, danced, hunted, rode to the foxes, drank, romanced young women but, with an eye to enriching himself, made the appalling mistake of wooing wealthy Elizabeth Russell, 19 years older than he was and the half-sister of the administrator. Somehow it had failed to register that the pair were devoted to one another and lived together as a married couple. In 1802, when Peter Russell found out about Willcocks’s behaviour—from Elizabeth—he immediately dismissed him from his job and evicted him from his house.

His next mentor was Henry Allcock, chief justice of the province, who engineered his appointment as local sheriff. “No Governor or King can dismiss me without [my] having committed some high offence,” boasted Willcocks in his diary. “I have the good fortune to be always at the strongest side.” But then Allcock left the colony in 1804, and he fell under the influence of Justice Robert Thorpe, a Whig, who quickly re-enforced Willcocks’s own Whig beliefs.

The dashing 31-year-old was drawn into politics. He was elected to the legislature. With Thorpe and a few others, he became the locus of opposition to the colonial elite and the autocratic lieutenant-governor, Francis Gore. He was jailed for nearly a month after being found in contempt of the legislature. Gore dismissed him as sheriff. He moved to Newark, bought a press in New York and began publication of the Upper Canada Guardian; or, Freeman’s Journal—“avowedly calculated,” as he wrote, “to disseminate the principles of political truth, check the progress of inordinate power, and keep alive the sacred flame of a just and rational liberty.”

He became leader of a group of elected legislators who all but controlled the assembly. Adhering to his Whig convictions, he strove to make clear his loyalty to the King while resisting all efforts by the administration—as war with the Americans drew closer—to limit civil liberties. The American capture and burning of York in April 1813 ended most public resistance to military rule and left Willcocks in despair. It was some time in July that he slipped across the Niagara River and became a traitor.

Perhaps Willcocks found intolerable the imposition of wartime military rule and suspension of civil liberties in Upper Canada and the undermining of the independence of the colonial legislature of which he was the leading opposition member. Or maybe he was just a romantic young man living a grandiose script, a Ninja Turtle of his day. No figure in Canadian history could benefit more from a psychological biography.

In any event, Canadians need not be annoyed by Joseph Willcocks.

Michael Valpy is a journalist and author. Through a long career at The Globe and Mail, he served as foreign correspondent, national political columnist, member of the editorial board and deputy managing editor before leaving to teach in 2010. He is a senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto.

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