Did the National Battlefields Commission "cravenly surrender" to threats of violence when it finally decided, last week, to cancel the re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham that was supposed to take place this summer in Quebec City? This is what the Montreal Gazette said in a fuming editorial, but there is another way to look at the controversy.
From the start, the commission should never have considered such a project. As Don Macpherson, a columnist for the same newspaper, wrote: "You don't need insight to see that recalling the defeat of the French in North America with a sort of Heritage-Minutes Plainsfest in the capital of the descendants of the losing side wasn't a good idea."
Of course the radical fringe of the sovereigntist movement that threatened to disrupt the show was wrong, but this is not the point. Such angry reactions are to be expected when an event is deemed offensive by a large part of the population. Contrary to the reports that circulated throughout Canada, the opposition was not limited to militant sovereigntists. It came from large numbers of francophones, including many federalists.
The sovereigntists were quick to capitalize on the issue in order to promote their own agenda, but this, too, was to be expected, considering that the re-enactment project, by definition, was politically charged. The fact that commission officials didn't predict such an obvious reality shows they are completely cut off from the Quebec mainstream.
Re-enactments of great battles are a popular form of entertainment these days and, in some countries, descendants of the losing side don't seem to mind - although there are at least as many counterexamples of countries where the idea of turning past defeats into tourist attractions would be totally repulsive. Yet again, this is beside the point.
The point is, in 1759, even though the battle was short, the French suffered a major defeat on the Plains of Abraham, one that signalled the end of the expansion of the French language and culture in North America. If King Louis XV had cared about the vast expanse that Voltaire called "a few acres of snow" as much as he cared about the sugar-cane fields of Martinique, the future of North America would have been entirely different. Who knows, maybe French would have been the continent's first language?
Such speculation is useless, of course. But there is absolutely no reason why the inhabitants of the only predominantly French-speaking society left in North America should celebrate the battle that their ancestors lost and that marked the end of French expansion on the continent.
True, the British conquest had some good effects for French Canadians - those who stayed after the French elite sailed back home. They went from an authoritarian monarchy to a constitutional monarchy where some basic civil rights were beginning to be recognized. In 1763, they benefited from habeas corpus, while in France (even to this day), one can still be jailed for months without being charged. In 1774, French civil law was restored in Quebec. In 1791, French Canadians were living in a parliamentary democracy, while a bloody revolution was going on in France.
But these are rational arguments that ignore emotions. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham still has a strong emotional echo in Quebec. It is the day of la Conquête (the Conquest), which resonates through many interpretations of history and is at the root of Quebec nationalism.
In any case, who would dare blame French Canadians for refusing to transform a seminal event into a tourist attraction, in a continent where political correctness virtually erased the memory of Christopher Columbus? The 500th anniversary of his major discovery - an event that really did change the world - was hardly commemorated in North America, because it would have offended the first nations.