Hold The Fort

Canadians are a remarkably peaceable bunch so it’s ironic that so many forts litter our landscape.

But I love forts – visited a ton when I was a kid – so this is not an issue for me.

Besides, they serve up history lessons you can’t get as vividly or dramatically anywhere else.

If you’re looking to hold the fort – or just want to add some bellicose flair to your next vacation – here are some Canadian must-dos.

QUEBEC CITADEL

The Changing of the Guard at Quebec City's Citadel with the regimental mascot - a goat - is a regular summer morning attraction.
The Changing of the Guard at Quebec City’s Citadel with the regimental mascot – a goat – is a regular summer morning attraction.

Climb the ramparts here for a panoramic view of one of Canada’s most appealing and photogenic cities.

Maybe it’s no coincidence this is where they also built one of Canada’s most imposing fortresses.

While the building of this behemoth was downright reactive (like most other Canadian redoubts, this one never suffered a shot fired in anger) – construction didn’t finish until 1831 – it does overlook a crucial battlefield. There, on the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe and Montcalm changed the course of Canadian history.

Best time to come is on a hot summer morning around 10 a.m.

If the changing of the guard, replete with shining swords and swirling trumpet strains accompanied by reverberating bass drum street beats, a procession led by the regimental mascot, a decorated goat, doesn’t make you wax patriotic you have a heart of stone.

Must-do number one.

FORT YORK

An interpreter at Fort York in Toronto shows off the variety of military uniforms worn during the eighteenth century.
An interpreter at Fort York in Toronto shows off the variety of military uniforms worn during the eighteenth century.

One of the strangest exhibits in this particular collection, Fort York in downtown Toronto still boasts original buildings and earthwork walls but it’s overpowered by a superhighway and more cranes than the fort had cannon.

It’s a surreal excursion; think the rat-a-tat-tat of a snare drum, fife strains echoing between a blockhouse and a soldier’s quarters. And the roar of truck engines.

Open year-round, it offers Canada’s largest collection of original 1812 buildings and was the site of the 1813 Battle of York.

Hard to drown out the sounds of modernity here, but still an interesting history lesson in an unexpected venue.

FORT MALDEN

Green trees and a verdant parade ground beside a soporific river glittering in the morning sun. Tankers ply the Detroit River today. Two centuries ago it was cannon-sprouting battleships.

Located in Amherstburg, Ontario just south of Windsor, this was a strategic site during the War of 1812. No battles were waged here given the fact that the fort wasn’t built until after that conflict but a look across the river gives you a sense of how important this post would have been. The American side’s less than a mile away.

Hands’-on history ranges from musket demonstrations to special school PD Day workshops for kids.

FORT GEORGE

Boasting recreated buildings to replicate garrison life, Fort George, just outside Niagara-on-the-Lake, was nearly demolished during the War of 1812.
Boasting recreated buildings to replicate garrison life, Fort George, just outside Niagara-on-the-Lake, was nearly demolished during the War of 1812.

Peaceful as a Sunday morning, here on the shores of the Niagara River but just over two hundred years ago this site was the scene of bloody conflict.

You can still relive that history today – from a cannon demonstration to a look at how soldiers on the frontier carried out their activities of daily living.

But the fascinating backstory of this place is both compelling and tragic. This is not the original fort though one building still stands.

On a May morning in 1813 American artillery basically pummeled the original to dust.

HALIFAX CITADEL

Live demonstrations, like this one at Halifax Citadel, make history come alive.
Live demonstrations, like this one at Halifax Citadel, make history come alive.

High on a hill overlooking Halifax Harbour, this fortress protected the waters far below, erstwhile home to the Royal Navy’s Dockyards. Halifax itself was known as the “fortress of the North”, from long before the American Revolution to the War of 1812 – and beyond, for that matter.

Come today and you find a sense of peace. Until you tour the excellent Army Museum housed within its walls.

The fortifications you see today are the fourth incarnation of defensive structures built here. The first structures protected from French incursions.

This one, dating from 1856, shares its name with another must-do fort.

Welcome to Halifax’s Fort George. The sequel.

FORT WILLIAM

The daily life of fur traders - from dining customs to how furs were graded - comes alive at Fort William near Thunder Bay, Ontario.
The daily life of fur traders – from dining customs to how furs were graded – comes alive at Fort William near Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Though it’s not really a fort, per se, though it’s not even on the original location and though it’s not historical in terms of having original buildings this is still a very cool – and educational attraction.

Just outside Thunder Bay, it offers an excellent collection of period artifacts but, more important, here you can get a sense of one of Canada’s earliest chapters – an up-close and personal view of what like was like in a fur company trading post during the heyday of the trade (circa 1815). Here history comes alive like few other similar sites I’ve ever seen.

You’ll be transported though time when you visit Fort William.

FORT HENRY

Come to Fort Henry in Kingston on a Wednesday and partake of a moving and stirring sunset extravaganza.
Come to Fort Henry in Kingston on a Wednesday and partake of a moving and stirring sunset extravaganza.

Stand high atop the walls of Fort Henry just outside Kingston, Ontario and get a great view of Lake Ontario, Kingston itself, the Cataraqui River, the Thousand Islands and, if you squint, U.S. Territory. You also get a history lesson.

 

The view before you is the chief reason Ottawa became the capital instead of Kingston. Too close to the American border.

Another of those strongholds that never actually saw battle, Fort Henry does boast one absolute must-do.

Come on a summer Wednesday evening for the sunset ceremony.

Think a lone piper, a lament wafting in the twilight as they lower the flag; think the strains of “O Canada” echoing in the parade square as visitors form an impromptu choir.

We stand on guard for thee.

 

TRIP TIPS:

For a great overview of Canada’s historic sites like many of these forts, check out http://www.pc.gc.ca/progs/lhn-nhs/index.aspx . Most of these are administered by Parks Canada.

2 Responses

  1. Kerry at The Insightful Wanderer

    I just recently toured and am writing about Fort George, but I would love to visit all of these. Thank you for rounding them up. Love being Canadian. There’s so much to write about and so much to do see and discover

    • Mark Stevens

      Agreed. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Fort George is a real gem – and I love Niagara-on-the-Lake, though not so much when it’s packed with tourists.