Don't refight the Plains of Abraham

Serious concerns are being raised, however, about the wisdom of restaging this bloody and pivotal event in Canada’s history, and not just by Quebec nationalists.

1759-2009 - point de vue anglo-saxon

Victor Suthren, Special to The Windsor Star - On Aug. 1, more than 1,000, largely American, military re-enactors -- hobbyists who dress in military uniforms and restage historic battles -- will carry out a re-enactment of the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. This event is being sponsored by the National Battlefields Commission.
But already questions have been raised as to whether this re-enactment should take place.
The use of so-called "living history" to teach historical lessons is a long and valued tradition in Canada, practised by agencies such as Parks Canada and by leading museums such as the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Serious concerns are being raised, however, about the wisdom of restaging this bloody and pivotal event in Canada's history, and not just by Quebec nationalists.
Critics contend the 10 minutes of slaughter on the Plains of Abraham is too serious a wound in Canada's psyche to be play-acted as entertainment before a public audience, leaving alone the question of whether bloody human conflict and suffering should be re-enacted at all.
The moment when one of Canada's two founding cultures was conquered by the other after a campaign of ruthless warfare that left much of the Lower St. Lawrence a smoking ruin must be remembered and understood. But critics claim it will be demeaned in a spectacle in which participants play at the choreography of an event of bloody killing and suffering that spelled the end of New France.
The 1759 campaign of the British to take Quebec was the culmination of a two-year strategy by prime minister William Pitt to bring an end to the French Empire in North America. The man chosen to take Quebec was Brevet Major General James Wolfe, who had been instrumental in the British capture of the Fortress of Louisbourg in 1758. Carried by a Royal Navy fleet of 141 ships with 13,000 sailors, Wolfe and 8,000 soldiers arrived at Quebec in June 1759, determined to take the citadel of French Canada.
Through the strenuous efforts of the French military commander, Montcalm, and his aide Bougainville, Wolfe failed in many attempts to get his troops ashore, and ordered the countryside around Quebec to be laid waste. Finally discovering a weak spot in Montcalm's defences in September, when it was almost too late, Wolfe managed to get his army ashore.
Montcalm assembled his defenders and marched to attack Wolfe's "thin red line" across the Plains of Abraham, only to be shattered in 10 minutes of devastating musket volleys from Wolfe's men.
Wolfe and Montcalm died. The British would hold the city over the winter, and although defeated the next April in another battle with the French at Ste.-Foy, kept possession of Quebec until the arrival of a British naval squadron up the river confirmed the conquest of the city. Montreal and the rest of New France would fall in 1760. The French upper classes returned to France, leaving the inhabitants of Quebec with an uncertain future.
It is a matter of record that, even as Wolfe's campaign of destruction and bloodshed had been harsh, postwar British government of the captured colony was lenient and considerate, and would provide for the survival of the French language, the church, and French civil law. The vibrant francophone Quebec society of today is the beneficiary of that perceptive policy.
Nonetheless, the fact of the conquest itself would remain forever a rallying point for those in Quebec with a sense of grievance, or seeking its independence. Even to those Quebecois attempting to make Canadian federalism work, reference to the conquest and its bloody events of warfare must be approached with respect, understanding, and great sensitivity if it is not to reawaken a sense of resentment and emotion that lurks never far from the surface.
Costumed re-enactment and pageantry will continue to have their place in the education of Canadians as to what happened in long-ago Canada, and why we are who we are. But perhaps the National Battlefields Commission, in its desire to add to Quebec City's tourism mix and provide an educational historical experience for visitors to the Plains of Abraham, might wish to rethink its intention to present a bloodless "battle" entertainment as a suitable commemoration of a bloody trauma with which Canada still contends. The wounds are still deep, the sensitivity still great.
Mark this event in the public mind, to be sure, but with gestures of respect for the fallen, and sensitivity to the courage of victors and vanquished alike. In place of a play-acted "battle" staged by Americans, an alternative would be to present a colourful and respectful event of pageantry by Canadians. The uniforms of 1759 could be seen again, as lines of young Canadians in the white and grey of France or the red of Britain face each other on the Plains -- but to salute one another, exchange with dignity symbols of respect for the mutual valour shown on that long-ago day, and then march together through the streets of the ancient city shaped by their sacrifice.

This would allow an appropriate recognition of the bloody horror that really took place on that storied field in 1759, and salute it with solemnity, dignity and respect. Not play-acted war.
Victor Suthren is a writer and historian. He is the former director general of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

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