The celebrations for Quebec City's 400th anniversary are off to a bad start. The New Year's Eve kickoff to 2008 -- four centuries after Samuel de Champlain found his settlement at "Kebec" -- was well attended but marred by logistical problems. Senior personnel have been dismissed, accusations of mismanagement and conflict of interest have been made and the "Urban Opera" spectacular has been cancelled. The Queen was not invited out of fear that she would not be received well, and the Pope has declined to come due to other travel commitments.
None of which should be catastrophic, as Quebec City is a jewel to be enjoyed even absent special events. And what is being celebrated is truly remarkable: Four centuries of stable settlement and the achievement of a vibrant, peaceable, prosperous French-speaking city, heir to a noble heritage as reflected in its architecture, both ecclesiastical and civil. In short, Quebec City is a bona fide historical success, a key part of the history of North America writ large, and Canada in particular.
So I was surprised last week to find in Maclean's magazine a full page advertisement from Quebec City Tourism inviting Canadians to celebrate the 400th anniversary of "Quebec City -- Your 2008 EuroStyle Destination." EuroStyle?
It's "Canada's most European destination" the insert continues, with "storybook architecture, fabulous dining, memorable history... ." History? There seems rather to be some historical forgetting going on here.
If this was a glossy flyer trying to persuade potential tourists from Tulsa or Topeka to come north, one could understand the Euro-theme. Come see Europe without having to fly across the ocean, in a place where you can still watch American Idol live! But to represent Canada's oldest city to Canadians as a reasonable facsimile of Europe is peculiar.
Quebec City is, to begin with, older than all five French Republics put together. It was founded 80 years before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which is often considered the establishment of parliamentary democracy in England. It predates the Italian risorgimento by two centuries. The Congress of Vienna (1815) took place when Quebec City had already hit middle age. So does it make sense to market Quebec City as a sort of reverse Euro Disney, Canadian edition?
For the occasion the Louvre is sending a special exhibition to Quebec City's National Museum, featuring its "Oriental, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities." I am sure it will be a splendid exhibition, but one might think the 400th would be an occasion for a special exhibition on the history of Canada or, if that is too anglais, on les Quebecois in Canada, or on Quebec itself. It is a history as gripping as some of the great European adventures for those with the wit to tell it.
One notes that on the official birthday, July 3, there will be a solemn Mass and military parade, which at least nods to Quebec's actual history. The Archbishop of Quebec, Cardinal Marc Ouellet -- who has been mightily striving to remind Quebecers that their history did not start in 1960 -- will be hosting the International Eucharistic Congress in June, a global Catholic event to which the Pope had been invited.
The rest of the program highlights Cirque du Soleil and Celine Dion, both products of Quebec that have become Las Vegas acts, which is good for them, but not exactly evocative of Quebecois culture, and suggests a certain unbecoming desire for American pop culture approval.
A few weeks ago Richard Gwyn, author of the acclaimed new biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, was in Kingston, Ont., for Macdonald's annual birthday celebrations and did the honours at the local historical society dinner. Lamenting the neglect of our own history, Gwyn said that Canada is in "danger of becoming a country without a history." Everyone has a past, Gwyn noted, but a history is something different; it is a way of knowing the past so that it animates the present, thus providing continuity to a culture. Of course he is right; to simply mark an event in the past is not the same as celebrating the relevant history. One gets the sense of that from Quebec's 400th celebrations.
Quebec's fourth centenary should not be only the occasion for a great party -- a Winter Carnival on steroids. It should be a grand occasion for teaching a new generation that Quebec City is not merely a folkloric preservation of a European past, but a considerable cultural and civic achievement that is, after all, authentic Canadian history.
Father Raymond J. De Souza, National Post