DAVID JOHNSTON - If Pierre Boulanger gets his way, every bell in Canada will ring simultaneously at 11 a.m. EDT next July 3, to mark the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain coming ashore here and founding what was to become Quebec City.
But whether Champlain's boat mooring - deduced from tidal records as likely being around 11 a.m., when tides would have been highest - also signified the birth of Canada is a touchy political question these days in the provincial capital.
As Boulanger's Quebec 2008 organizing committee yesterday started a 100-day countdown to the New Year's Eve onset of the anniversary celebration, it's a question that has come to overshadow the quadricentennial festivities.
"Australia was born in English, Canada in French - at Quebec City 400 years ago next year," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Sept. 11 in a speech to the Australian parliament. At the francophone summit last fall in Bucharest, Romania, Harper drew an equally clear equation between 1608 and 2008 when he declared "the founding of Quebec also marks the founding of the Canadian state."
For Parti Québécois MNAs and nationalist groups across the province, Harper is taking the Quebec 2008 celebrations out of context to try to make electoral gains here.
"What we should be celebrating in 2008 is the birth of a French presence in North America," said PQ member Agnès Maltais, who represents a Quebec City riding.
"But from what I'm seeing, there's a movement afoot to turn this into a celebration of the foundation of Canada.
"For me, it's okay for people to want to celebrate Canada. But Canada was born in 1867, not in 1608."
On the other hand, how could nationalists expect the federal government not to have a say in Quebec 2008, given that it has put up 40 per cent of the money to run the 80-employee organizing committee headed by Boulanger, a former Canadian diplomat.
Another 40 per cent of the $90-million organizing budget of the Société du 400e anniversaire de Québec was put up by the federalist Charest government, while the remaining 10 per cent has been Quebec City's share.
Boulanger was in Regina this week at a meeting of the Canadian Capital Cities Organization. He was there to explore ways to promote the quadricentennial, as well as to get the 14 national, provincial and territorial capital cities to sign on to the simultaneous bell-ringing initiative.
Various religious denominations across Canada - anyone, in fact, with a bell to ring - are also being solicited to take part.
"It will be a sort of audio wink-of-the-eye to Quebec City," Boulanger said. "But it's something that is going to take some publicizing. Because people in Vancouver could find themselves waking up next July 3 at 8 a.m. (11 a.m. EDT) and wondering what's going on."
With the 100-day countdown under way, organizers are planning weekly announcements of new performers and exhibitions to the events calendar.
"It's going to be like a striptease - we'll show you a bit at a time, but not everything at the same time," said Paul-Christian Nolin, the director of communications. Nolin has been in place for only three weeks. He was the former chief of staff to Quebec City Mayor Andrée Boucher, before her sudden death Aug. 25.
The 400th-anniversary festivities are to begin New Year's Eve with a Times Square-like countdown in Place d'Youville, just inside the St. Jean gate to the old walled city. The celebrations will wind up Oct. 19 as Quebec City hosts the Francophonie summit.
During the intervening summer months, the centre of action will be the Louise Basin in the old port area. Construction crews have been busy this summer building a hub there called Espace 400e, for the celebrations; and fresh coats of paint elsewhere have left the provincial capital looking in splendid form.
Despite unease among nationalists over the associations being made between the birth of Quebec City and of Canada, the countervailing view is that so-called federalist piggybacking has been relatively discreet, and hasn't crossed the lines of political decency.
This is still understood to be Quebec City's show - and francophone North America's show - more than Canada's.
Isabelle Merizzi, an aide to Health Minister Philippe Couillard, who represents a Quebec City riding, told Le Devoir last weekend there is no escaping the reality that Canada exists, and that Quebec City is in Canada.
"We live in Canada. We have no difficulty with that concept," she said. "I know the péquistes have problems with that - but us, we don't."
Canada's official languages commissioner, Graham Fraser, recently urged organizers not to overlook the contribution anglophones have made to the history of Quebec City.
"In fact, this was a major preoccupation of Madame Boucher, when she was mayor - not to forget anglophones," Nolin said.
As a result, half a dozen different projects highlighting anglophone involvement in the city's history are in the planning, said Roxanne Saint-Pierre, an aide to Nolin.
For more information about the anniversary celebrations, visit the website at www.monquebec 2008.com
Ring out the birthday bells
Four hundred years ago, Samuel de champlain made landfall from the St. Lawrence and founded what was to become Quebec city. Will politics end up overshadowing the festivities?