A tale of two nations and one very important pig
Institutionally, R Street owes a debt of gratitude to Canada. A former founding member of our governing board, David Frum, is Canadian and our current board chair, Marni Soupcoff, is the executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation. Editor-in-Chief R.J. Lehmann was briefly a Canadian resident and my presence at R Street, to the extent it is worthy of note, is a result of my father, Dave Adams, who is a Canadian by birth.
Today, the relationship between Canada and the United States is under-appreciated because of its remarkable stability. As neighbors, as partners in trade, as allies and as members of the Anglosphere, the United States and Canada share a bond unique among nations. But it wasn’t always that way.
Conflict between the United States and its neighbor to the north – be it flying a Union Jack or a dominion flag – has not been rare. But a relatively obscure conflict, one with only a single casualty, played a crucial but quiet role in the development of Canadian autonomy and the relationship the two countries enjoy today.
Known as the Pig War, roughly two decades before the date now celebrated as Canada Day, the United States and the British Empire nearly went to war over disputed territory in the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest. The two powers mobilized sea and land forces in a border contest that was triggered by a pig.
The story goes that a recently settled U.S. farmer on an island slip between the United States and Britain’s Canadian territories arose one day to find a pig tearing up his crops. To end the feast, the farmer shot the pig. This is where the trouble began, because the pig was owned by an employee of the royally chartered Hudson’s Bay Co.
Upon learning of the pig’s demise, the HBC employee demanded $100 compensation for the pig. The U.S. farmer responded by claiming the pig had been trespassing. That straightforward legal claim led directly to weightier questions of state about who exactly was on whose land.
The United States sent in troops to substantiate its claim. The British sent in marines and a naval squadron to substantiate theirs. When news of the brewing conflict reached Washington and London, the powers agreed to a joint military occupation of the island.
That joint occupation was hardly contentious. U.S. and British soldiers interacted regularly and even held friendly games of cricket to pass the time. Eventually, 12 years later, an arbitrator decided the island should be ceded in its entirety to the United States. This was in 1872, five years after the British North American Act.
Canadians were, understandably, irked by what they saw as a betrayal by the British. Already unhappy with the Oregon Treaty, which established the western boundaries between the nations, Canadian sentiment was cemented by the surrender of territory in the San Juan Islands. As a result, Canada began agitating in earnest for greater autonomy from Great Britain. Sovereignty followed.
So, on this Canada Day, let us not forget the sacrifice made by that doomed pig and the independent and cooperative relationship that its end helped forge!