"There will be no 250th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, after all," The Globe's Konrad Yakabuski wrote Saturday in his Globe essay [Montcalm and Wolfe fail to meet again->18091]
"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 . . .
"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 . . .
"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."
Whether you agree or not, it's a provocative thesis, so we at globeandmail.com were pleased to welcome Mr. Yakabuski online to take your questions on his essay and the issues it raises.
Your questions and Mr. Yakabuski's answers appear at the bottom of this page.
Konrad Yakabuski has written on Quebec business, politics and culture for The Globe and Mail since 1996. He previously worked as a political reporter at Le Devoir.
He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from McGill University and a Master of Science in Business Administration degree from the University of British Columbia.
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Brodie Fenlon, globeandmail.com: Thank you for joining us Konrad. I've grouped the first two questions together because they are similar:
Charles Carleton from Gatineau writes: Please correct me if I'm misunderstanding my history, but if the French had been victorious at the Plains and somehow managed to fight off the British for a few more years and retain Quebec under the flag of France, wouldn't Napoleon have sold Quebec in the Louisiana purchase. He was pretty desperate for cash back then and didn't care much about American colonies that he couldn't defend anyway. Wouldn't we all be Americans now? Last time I checked there aren't much remnants of French culture in the U.S. So I think our situation ended up pretty good and we should be thankful we capitulated to the British and didn't get sold to the Americans. Would love to here your thoughts on this.
Richard Underwood from Victoria writes: It is my understanding that this battle had little to do with Quebec but rather it decided the fate of the French colonies in North America. Quebec itself actually ended up on the winning side when Canada was formed in 1867 by being allowed to keep the French culture and legal system whereas the rest of the French colonies were integrated into the culture and legal system of the United States of America in 1783.
Konrad Yakabuski: Hello Mr. Carleton. In my essay, I purposely stayed away from interpreting history and the historical significance of the Plains battle myself. There are enough people on both sides of this issue doing that now - and in a not altogether disinterested way. Suffice it to say, you bring up one popular interpretation of 1759 and its repercussions. Many historians, and French Canadian federalists (and probably quite a few sovereigntists, too), do believe that Quebec fared better under post-1759 British rule than it would have had France held on to the colony. The Quebec Act and arrival of representative democracy are just two examples of how that was true. The former was essential to the cultural survival of French Canadians, the latter gave them democratic freedoms they would not have known as New France colonists until several decades later.
Would France have eventually ceded or sold Quebec to the British or Americans anyway, even if Quebec and Montreal hadn't fallen in 1759 and 1760? That is a question I'll leave professional historians to hash out. But the weight of historical evidence suggests France didn't care much what happened to Quebec. Even when it was given the opportunity to retain the colony in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris, in 1763, it did not capitalize on it. It preferred to hang on to Guadeloupe and Martinique. Those are still French possessions, overseas departments, almost entirely dependent on France for economic survival. Recent rioting in Guadeloupe shows the extent of economic hardship there. That situation in Guadeloupe not in anyway comparable to Quebec's, however.
France regained control of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon under the Treaty of Paris and, except of a rocky period during the Revoluntionary years, has held on to it since. Would it have kept Quebec had it held on to it in 1763? There is no right answer.
Caper from Canada writes: Hi. As a writer who has written for the Devoir in the past, would you be able to elucidate the readership as to what is taught in Québec schools as to the events that led to New France ceasing to exist?
Konrad Yakabuski: That is a difficult question to answer. Texts used to teach history are one thing. The sense given to them by teachers, quite another. The teaching of history at the secondary school level is constantly under review in Quebec. But the basics of the current curriculum were set in 1982, although recent reforms have been introduced in stages. There has been a huge debate in the past couple of years about proposals from within the Education Ministry to change the way history is taught -- moving away from an events-based method (ie. 1759, 1774, 1791, 1867) to so-called "skills-based learning" (only pedagogical experts really know what that means). A group of historians denounced the changes, introduced under the Liberal Charest government, as "a systematic exercise to obscure the Quebec nation."
That said, the basic course is still called "L'Histoire du Québec et du Canada" suggesting they are separate. La Conquête (The Conquest) is still the term used to describe 1759. When bureaucrats designed a section of the course called "Accession to Democracy in the British Colony" opponents found that the title did not suggest stongly enough the hardship experienced by colonists. Hence, the title was changed to "Demands and Struggles in the British Colony."
My answer is not sufficiently detailed to be truly helpful, I'm afraid, because this is such a complex topic. The course is likely to change a lot in coming years as sensitivity to broader societal issues are taken into account, from immigration to human rights.
A M from Canada writes: Mr. Yakabuski, is this not simply more of the same old identity battle that will continue for years to come? Pearson, Trudeau, and Chrétien were active in promoting the "Canadian" identity (this did not start with the Sponsorship Program - see Canadian Flag Debate). It seems that Harper (and Mulroney before him) prefer a laissez faire approach towards promoting the Canadian identity in Quebec, which allows Quebec-nationalist organizations to dominate the discussion. Would you agree that the main reason for such a weak defence of the reenactment was because this laissez fair approach? I think that had Pearson, Trudeau or Chrétien been in charge, the protest would have fizzled and the event would have proceeded as planned.
Konrad Yakabuski: Would Jean Chrétien have backed down? We'd have to ask him. He did admit a few years ago that he wished 1759 had gone the other way. So, even staunch federalists in Quebec have a certain ambivalence about the Battle. Their ancestors lost. And that conditioned the Québécois psyche ever since. Messrs. Pearson, Trudeau and Chrétien may have a ``tough-love`` approach to Quebec, but where did that get them? Any attempt to steamroll over Quebeckers deeply-felt amivalence over their place in Canada is doomed to cement that ambivalence. Mr. Harper's government made a wise decision in cancelling the event. Even Jean Charest was against it. The Battlefields Commission's event-planning was seriously flawed.
Jacques Dubois from Brussels writes: As a Canadian living in Europe, I have to wonder why this non-event story will simply not go away? It's like the Anglo press in Canada keep kicking the cold ashes of the separatist movement in Quebec (sure the flame still burns for some counterculture seniors but there are less and less showing up at the party...) hoping for some sort of reaction, some sort of indignation. Guys....we just don't care any more. Get over it.
Konrad Yakabuski: Mr. Dubois, you obviously have not been reading the French-language media or blogs. The debate over the re-enactment originated within Quebec and was largely contained within it. The media outside Quebec covered it very sporadically.
You also obviously did not follow the results of the recent federal and provincial elections. "Separatism" may or may not be dead. But the fight for some kind of new federalism or devolution of powers (and money) to Quebec will continue, and I would argue, is poised for a new boost in light of current economic conditions.
The idea of the Parti Québécois as the party of single generation is so last year. The conseil général meeting of the party was bursting with young people on the weekend. The difficulties of the ADQ also bode well for the PQ. If the ADQ slips deeper into marginal status, Quebec politics will once again return to the bi-party system that is polarized over the sovereignty-federalism question. Those on the left who have left the PQ for fringe parties are more likely to return to the fold as a PQ victory in the next election becomes more likely. The Liberals are in their third term and will emerge highly unpopular from the current economic downturn.
Frank Booth from Abbotsford writes: I do not understand why they do not want the re-enactment to go on. Do they want Sovereignty or do they not? There is a plaque in one of the corners of Trafalgar Square in London where ever year British and German sailors commemorate the Battle of Jutland together!! It is our History.
Konrad Yakabuski: Hello Mr. Booth. If only there was a simple answer to your question. The response to the re-enactment proposal cannot be just be summed up as a debate between sovereigntists and federalists. As my essay tried to explain, there is frustration - and outrage - in Quebec that politicians and bureaucrats continue to play petty games and need history lessons of their own. In this case, the blame falls less on the politicians than on a small group of appointees named by the Chrétien government in 1995. They were living in a time warp if they thought they could get away with such an ill-conceived event. They billed it as the "premier summer event of 2009" replete with a masked ball. It was just a little too much revisionist history for even a lot of federalist Quebeckers to take.
Michael Manning from Mississauga writes: Hello Konrad: You made an allusion to red coats and blue coats in your column. In fact the French army in the Ancien Regime wore white coats. Blue was a colour selected by the Revolutionary French in 1793 so that the army would look less Royalist. This is a small error and does not negate your arguments. It does, however, got to demonstrate the value of historical re-enactments. If you were allowed to see the battle re-enactment you would learn about the French army, its tactics and its uniforms. You would also be able to wander through the encampments and speak with the re-enactors and learn what they have uncovered through personal study about life in the 18th Century. Likewise you would be able to discover that the muskets are not toys and the bayonets are not plastic. Everything is as real as we can make it. Well, okay, we draw the line on bad hygiene, disease, tainted food and open pit latrines. Contrary to what the detractors have repeated over and over, without anyone actually challenging them, re-enactments do not glorify war or celebrate defeats. They commemorate historical events and, in particular, the ordinary men and women who lived through them without ever getting their names in the history books. It is sad that this particular re-enactment has been hijacked by people with a political agenda. It is sadder still that the national press has done little or nothing to educate the average reader as to what a re-enactment is, what was being proposed (three battles, two French victories and one English victory) and that the organizers of this particular event were Quebeckers from all political stripes.
Konrad Yakabuski: Good point. I think that if I had said white coats not many people would have known what I was talking about. But to your larger point, I fully agree that there is a place for re-enactments. This one was ill-conceived, and I think my essay explains why it was legitimately greeted with suspicion on the part a huge number of Quebeckers - federalist, sovereigntist, and unaligned alike. I suspect that it is only by living here that you can only appreciate that. I have watched this debate for going on three decades and this was not some media-driven attempt to create a controversy where none existed.
It seems the bureaucrats interpreted their mandate in political terms. They seemed to have consulted British and American tour operators, but not Quebec society itself. The original program for the 250th anniversary had to pulled because it was so offensive. The bureaucrats clearly portrayed the event as a celebration.
Historical re-enactment buffs might get a kick out of that, but broader Quebec society does not feel the same way about it.
L.B. MURRAY from Canada writes: Good afternoon, Konrad. Would you agree that a sober ceremony honouring the dead, such as the Vimy Ridge ceremony, would have been appropriate? Do you think the only reason the ''celebrations on the plains'' were cancelled were not because of a couple of threats but more because it was made obvious that the planning and marketing on this event was all wrong from the beginning and Mr. Juneau was obviously not up to the task... Thank you.
Konrad Yakabuski: Yes, L.B., I think you're right. I want to try to stay away from imputing motives to individuals, but Mr. Juneau (the chairman of the National Battlefields Commission) clearly lost the public relations battle. The planning phase was clearly deficient. There needed to have been a broader consultation on the event and the tone it needed to take. Mr. Juneau had every opportunity to explain his plans or to revise them. He resisted in the early weeks of this debate. It simply became too late for him to do damage control.
There have been lots of commemorative events on the Plains, and that would seem the appropriate route to go if we are to mark the 250th anniversary with a ceremony of sorts. There is conference planned in September in Quebec City on the historical significance of 1759 and that will, also appropriately, go ahead. But that won't have the wide public profile of an actual event on the Plains.
Some proponents, by the way, have noted that the Battle was indeed re-enacted on the Plains in 1999. They've used this argument to suggest the current controversy was created by the media and a few sovereigntist politicians looking for attention. I disagree. The reason the 1999 went ahead is that no one really knew about it until it was over. I remember it well. It's hard to drum up a lot of indignation over spilt milk.
Brodie Fenlon, globeandmail.com: We're at the end of our hour. I'd like to wrap with a final question: What do you think the longer term repercussions of this controversy are going to be?
Konrad Yakabuski: Thanks, Brodie, for having me. As for the longer term consequences, I suspect the controversy will leave Ottawa chastened and possibly lead to a shake-up on the board of the National Battlefields Commission. Ottawa appoints all but one of its nine members - and the federal appointees have all been there since 1995.
The sovereigntist camp will attempt to keep the debate alive by demanding that the Plains be returned by Ottawa to the Quebec government itself or the Commission de la capitale nationale, which manages provincially-owned public sites in Quebec City. Joint federal-provincial management of the Plains is another option. In closing, I'll just say the controversy has unfortunately tarnished the Commission which has done a good job of managing the site as an urban park for recreation and public concerts. It should stick to that and stay out of politics. À la prochaine.
Brodie Fenlon, globeandmail.com: Thank you again for sharing this hour with us. Readers can continue the discussion here on the comments thread of Konrad's original essay.