Montcalm and Wolfe fail to meet again

But the feuding clans within the Québécois nation join battle on the Plains of Abraham

1759-2009 - point de vue anglo-saxon

There will be no 250th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, after all. The National Battlefields Commission, a federal agency embroiled in a war of its own, has bowed to Quebec nationalists and its taskmasters in Ottawa, and cancelled the event it had hyped as 2009's "premier summer event in Quebec City." Now, the idea of reliving those 20 minutes in 1759 that made us who we are is history itself. The battle over the Battle, however, will endure. It will now be fought without period costumes and fake bayonets.
Despite 250 years of shared achievements, neither side in this battle is willing, or big enough, to gracefully acknowledge what 1759 represents for the other. Though each side is noisomely touchy in relation to what the other says about it, both seem incapable of empathy.
The "sides" here are not Quebec and the rest of Canada. They are the feuding clans within the Québécois nation itself. On one side, the federalist warriors characterize 1759 as the starting point of French Canadian liberation, when the colonists of New France threw off an exploitative and uninterested ruler that was at least a century behind the British on the road to democracy. The sovereigntist combatants, on the other hand, see the Conquest as the tragic moment when they were forced into chronic inwardness and a still incomplete struggle for cultural survival and self-rule.
You can argue until you're blue(coat) or red(coat) in the face, you won't get any closer to the truth. Not even professional historians — the ones who are supposed to suspend their subjective faculties and political opinions — seem to agree on the significance of 1759. But it probably doesn't matter, because this squabble — it will come as no surprise — is not about the past at all.

Spectators filled the field at the Plains of Abraham for a Céline Dion concert last summer. (CP/Jacques Boissinot)

As the 19th-century French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote: "The existence of a nation is a plebiscite of every day, as the existence of an individual is a perpetual affirmation of life." The Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan quotes Renan in last year's The Uses and Abuses of History, her enlightening account of how what gets called "history" is often just a construct employed in the service of present political needs and objectives.
In this sense, nationalism and history make essential bedfellows. The former could not exist without the latter. But once the nation has been formed and has assumed its identity, the real, but very complex, history that gave rise to it is compacted into a series of near-sacred myths, which usually bear only a slight resemblance to the truth.
"History provides much of the fuel for nationalism," Ms. MacMillan observes. "It creates the collective memories that help bring the nation into being. The shared celebration of the nation's greatest achievements — and the shared sorrow at its defeats — sustain and foster it." But when a nation is split, as in Quebec, between two factions, the history that produced it becomes even more complicated to decipher, and, hence, easier to twist for political purposes. Propaganda seems like a big word for it. But even apolitical Quebeckers can recognize attempts at brainwashing when they see them.
Quebec politicians and their helpmates have played fast and loose with history at least since 1759. But since the run-up to the 1995 referendum, Quebeckers have been besieged more than ever by propaganda-lite. The unaligned majority is largely fed up with these attempts to tell them what to think and with the tactics used in the process.
Only weeks before his recent death, Jean Pelletier, who, as Jean Chrétien's chief of staff, piloted Ottawa's anti-sovereigntist strategy, confided that he couldn't remember whether he worried that the famous "love-in" organized by the No side on the eve of the 1995 referendum violated Quebec's electoral law. "In war, you don't ask yourself whether the ammunition has been paid for. You fire," Mr. Pelletier told Le Soleil.
Wrong answer. The outrage that accompanied the federal sponsorship scandal, in which Ottawa inundated the province with pro-unity advertising dollars, endures in Quebec. It is not as acute as it was during the Gomery inquiry, where daily revelations of unseemly ends-justifying-means behaviour contributed to the rout of the federal Liberals in the province in the 2006 election. But the reaction to the Plains re-enactment rose from its embers.
The National Battlefields Commission currently has eight members. All but one of them was appointed by Mr. Chrétien's government in 1995, a year that will go down as either the beginning or the end of the ultimate federalist-sovereigntist showdown. At the time, and especially after the sovereigntists' near-victory that October, it looked like the beginning. Both sides thought so, and armed themselves accordingly.
Mr. Chrétien chose André Juneau — a former federal civil servant, suburban Quebec City mayor and friend of Mr. Pelletier — to chair the commission. The Quebec media noted that he had ties to the Liberals and to the Canadian Unity Council. Le Devoir reported recently that, as chair of the battlefields agency, he asked the sponsorship overlord Alfonso Gagliano, then the federal Minister of Public Works, for an extra $500,000 to counter the propaganda machine at the provincial Commission de la capitale nationale, which promotes Quebec City's identity as the seat of the "national" government.
Planning for the 250th anniversaries of the Plains and the 1760 Battle of Sainte-Foy began long ago. A report on the commission's plans and priorities submitted by Mr. Juneau in 2005 to Bev Oda, then the heritage minister, insisted the agency "must take advantage of these events to raise the public's awareness of the history of this period … and to demystify these famous Quebec City battles." Demystify? The word itself is suspect.
Whether or not Mr. Juneau and his team were sincere about staging a re-enactment of the battle that would be pedagogical rather than political does not matter. The weight of circumstantial evidence — and recent history — made it nearly impossible even for non-sovereigntists to suspend judgment on Mr. Juneau's motives.
"A responsible manager should never have committed the public agency under his charge to an operation that amounted to provocation pure and simple," the Le Devoir columnist Michel David wrote. "But zealots are by definition irresponsible." Mr. Juneau this week cited the threat of violence posed by opponents of the re-enactment as the reason for the decision to cancel the event. But his political masters in Ottawa must have known that, though they may have won the original Battle of the Plains, they were losing the current one. They had to retreat, and save their fire, before they lost the war, too.

Sovereigntist politicians feigned victory smiles when the event was cancelled. But they were actually disappointed by their adversaries' hasty decampment. History has taught them that their fortunes are directly proportional to the duration of the indignation they can stir up among their compatriots. This time, it was all over almost as quickly as the 1759 battle itself.
Unexpectedly impressive showings by the sovereigntist parties in the recent federal and provincial elections belie what has been a year of setbacks for their cause. The 400th anniversary of Champlain's founding of Quebec last year failed to translate into an appetite among Quebeckers to undo what 1759 had done. The sovereigntists blew a gasket when the Queen's representative, not le premier ministre du Québec, oversaw the anniversary celebrations in France. They blew another, when Stephen Harper insisted that the founding of Quebec "also marks the founding of the Canadian state." Non, they retorted, it marks the birth of the "the cradle of the Québécois nation." Most Quebeckers likely saw no contradiction between the two. And even if some considered these to be incompatible interpretations of history, the debate never entered the danger zone the way the Plains controversy just has. It was summer, after all, and Quebeckers were not going to waste its precious few weeks battling on the Plains. The latter, as the free concerts by Celine and Sir Paul demonstrated, were reserved for partying.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's subsequent move to break with his country's former "ni-ni" policy on Quebec sovereignty — non-interference but non-indifference — was at once a blow and a gift to sovereigntists. Tacit French endorsement of their cause had been their sole line of defence against charges that the international community would never recognize their claims to independence in a narrowly won referendum. Mr. Sarkozy disowned them and it hurt.
Yet, at the same time, Mr. Sarkozy's charges of "sectarianism" and "self-confinement" were contemptuous enough to grate on the nerves of even Quebec federalists. Imagine what they did for those with latent sovereigntist sympathies. But though a gift to the sovereigntists, it is not likely one that keeps on giving. They needed the Plains battle to go on a while longer for that to happen.
One might argue that Mr. Sarkozy has best defined the meaning of the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains by showing that the French are once again as indifferent to the fate of their colonial cousins as they were in 1759. But that would be using, if not abusing, history.

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