Public opinion, not separatists, killed battlefield plan

Federalists and sovereignists alike opposed the re-enactment scheme

1759-2009 : la résistance

It was one thing for the National Battlefields Commission to say that threats of violence by "radical separatists" forced it to cancel the re-enactment of the battle of the Plains of Abraham. But it's quite another to believe it.
If there's one thing that became obvious over the past weeks, it is how much the marking of the 250th anniversary of what led to the defeat of New France was rejected by public opinion. The fact might be inconvenient to some, but it's mostly because of the clarity of this opposition that the commission president, André Juneau, finally retreated.
Juneau used threats of violence as his excuse, but the unfolding of this saga tells a different story. On Jan. 8, Le Devoir columnist Michel David described the commemoration program that was promoted as a major tourist attraction - the American Bus Association billed it as one of the 100 top events of the year. David asked: "Do you know of many places in the world where a people would celebrate the worst defeat of its history?"
Good question.
The battlefield commission's plans also featured a masquerade ball, free "family days" and a tasteless invitation to "come play tourist in your own city." Crowning it all was a picture of two descendants of Montcalm and Wolfe, in full uniform of the time, shaking hands and smiling as if they'd been childhood buddies.
So Juneau - a self-described ardent federalist and Liberal supporter who, in 2001, asked Alfonso Gagliano for $500,000 from the sponsorship program to help him increase the "visibility of the government of Canada" - concocted a program based on a revisionist view of 1759, and even packaged it as a tourist attraction.
Quebec's political class missed the boat almost entirely. On Jan. 16, Jean Charest said to a reporter he wouldn't attend, but he didn't criticize it. More bizarre still was his statement this week that this story had "sullied the image of Quebec," yet he was "satisfied" with the re-enactment's cancellation, although, as premier, he never asked for it to be cancelled. Pauline Marois took 20 days after the David's column to criticize the event, and waited longer to ask for its cancellation. Action démocratique's Éric Caire branded opponents of the re-enactment as "colonized."
In Ottawa, the Harper government improvised its way through the mounting controversy. Oddly enough for this highly controlled cabinet, ministers took turns contradicting each other. Josée Verner said she'd attend whereas Jean-Pierre Blackburn criticized it.
In the rest of the country, few analysts and historians supported the event. In the Globe and Mail on Jan. 27, Rod Love, former Alberta premier Ralph Klein's ex-chief-of-staff - not exactly separatist material - called it a bad idea. He ridiculed the concept asking why don't we also "throw some Japanese-Canadians in jail to recreate our horrible over-reaction to the the start of the Second World War?"
While most politicians seemed lost on the issue, it became quickly clear that many Quebecers, sovereignists and federalists, were set against it. Some smaller sovereignist groups did express anger against what was, at worst, a provocation, or at best, an appalling lack of judgment.
But there were also many letters and opinion pieces against it in Quebec papers by citizens and experts alike. Petitions circulated. In Quebec City, 80 opinion leaders of all political stripes condemned the event.
This lead to the realization that a federal agency under the highly politicized Heritage Canada shouldn't be responsible for such a central symbol of Quebec's history. The idea of "patriating" the Plains under Quebec jurisdiction was then raised by the former president of Quebec's Commission de la capitale nationale among others.
So Juneau can hide behind this alleged fear of violence. But it was the voice of civil society - historians, opinion leaders and even columnists from both sides of the constitutional fence - who said that 1759 should not to be turned into a revisionist spectacle negating its ensuing consequences.
This voice isn't unanimous. But there sure is a strong consensus out there.

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