Next summer, Quebec City will celebrate the 400th anniversary of its founding. By European standards, 400 years are no big deal, but in the New World, a 400th birthday definitely calls for a party.
And quite a party Quebec City will have. The co-ordinating committee has a $90-million nest egg, $40 million from the federal government and the rest from the Quebec government and from the city's own coffers. In addition, Ottawa has pumped an extra $70 million into infrastructure improvements to make the city ready for the dignitaries, foreign tourists and Canadians who will visit.
The Conservative government took some heat when Bev Oda, then the heritage minister, announced all that funding in August of last year. "Pandering to Quebec," said critics elsewhere. "Vote buying."
Oda hung in there, saying "this is a celebration of national importance and we invite citizens from across Canada to celebrate. ... It is the history of all Canadians and these celebrations will be for all Canadians."
Now, Graham Fraser, Canada's official-languages commissioner, has shown he wants to make sure it happens that way. A report in La Presse this week said Fraser has told Laurent Tremblay, the federal official in charge of Ottawa's support for the "fête du 400e" that the anglophone role in the city's history must not be forgotten.
This is delicate territory, but Fraser is correct and we trust all the organizers of the 2008 celebrations will be open to a fair-minded version of history.
Fraser also urged fête organizers to make francophones outside Quebec welcome, because they, too, have had a role in Canadian history. That part of his message was, we're afraid, a bit of a stretch. But certainly anglophones have had a role to play in the history of the city. The old capital was founded by settlers from France, but much of later progress depended on the British merchants and tradesmen who built the place into a bustling commercial metropolis. Many British soldiers, demobilized there after the conquest, settled and married, which is why there are today Quebec francophones with last names such as Campbell and Fraser.
In an age of identity politics, no doubt certain people will endeavour to serve their own purposes by painting Quebec City's history as the tale of a valiant pur-laine peasantry crushed under the jackboot of Britannic imperialism. "Let the past serve the present."
That should not be allowed to happen. Since the end of hostilities at the Plains of Abraham, Quebec City has through its history been a microcosm of Canada as a whole: coexistence and then co-operation, sometimes wary but ultimately leading to some understanding and even a measure of mutual respect.
If organizers want their big party to be successful next year, they will have to be sure everyone feels welcome. Canadians from outside Quebec can share this happy occasion, and understand their country better, if only they are given a chance, and made to feel this Canadian success story is their history, too.