A 250-year-old defeat still rankles
THE Battle of the Plains of Abraham was brief and not all that bloody, but it was historic. On September 13th 1759, France’s loss of its colonial territories in North America was set in motion when British redcoats scaled cliffs protecting Quebec City and defeated troops and militia loyal to Louis XV. A modern-day battle over the battle, which concluded on February 17th, lasted somewhat longer and ended very differently. It flared up over plans to mark the battle’s 250th anniversary with a re-enactment, and ended with Quebec separatists crying victory and Canada’s federal government beating a hasty retreat.
The re-enactment was to have been the centrepiece of a summer-long commemoration of 1759’s events. But to some Quebeckers commemoration sounded like celebration. “Dancing on the graves of our ancestors,” was how the Réseau de Résistance du Québécois (RRQ), a group of sovereigntist hardliners, described it. They demanded the re-enactment’s cancellation. For several weeks debate raged. The re-enactment was an exercise to pay tribute to the fallen and educate the living about one of Canada’s most important episodes, said its supporters. These included 2,000 or so mostly American “re-enacters”, the federal government and Quebec City’s mayor, who was loth to lose millions of dollars in tourist spending.
Opponents, and most of the French-language press, cursed the proposed re-enactment as a “repugnant federalist propaganda operation”. When it reached a point where its organisers were receiving threats—including having “our bayonets shoved up our butts”, according to their leader—the National Battlefields Commission, which administers the Plains of Abraham, cancelled the mock battle and other activities planned for the summer. Or, as the Gazette, Quebec’s only English daily, wrote, it “cravenly surrendered the field”.
If there was an edifying component to the brouhaha, it lay in displaying the different light in which the Conquest, as it is known, is seen by those on opposite sides of the Quebec independence debate. For many sovereigntists it was the beginning of domination by the wretched English, and of the struggle for cultural survival. Federalists, however, both Francophone and Anglophone, argue that after the Conquest the French of New France got rights they could only dream of under the exploitative, authoritarian ancien régime.
Whatever the case, the re-enactment was probably doomed from the moment in mid-January when the RRQ pledged “to go on the warpath” against it. Support for Quebec’s sovereignty spikes whenever it is felt that English Canada is taking it for granted or not respecting it. Wise federal politicians are thus wary of anything that may rile Quebec sensitivities. Nevertheless, a few cabinet ministers took opposing positions on the re-enactment.
Quebec’s premier, Jean Charest, was shrewd enough not to get involved. He simply announced that he would not attend. This is a decision Generals Wolfe and Montcalm, the commanders of the British and French forces in 1759, should probably also have made; both died of wounds suffered on the Plains of Abraham.