Every morning I cross the Plains of Abraham. As I write this in February, it was about minus 12 degrees this morning, and through the trees I could see a hazy pink sun and its reflection on pans of pink ice floating up the steaming St. Lawrence River. A perfect Quebec winter day. It is the Plains of Abraham that make Quebec City a wonderful place to live.
Winter and summer, whether on skis, on bikes or on foot, I almost always meet friends there. Almost all of them are francophone--not surprisingly, as anglophones are 2 per cent of this city's population. My newest friend is a deaf woman (anaphone?) and we speak by writing things in the snow for each other. It never occurs to any of us to fire muskets into one another's hearts.
But 250 years ago, on these Plains, the English and French did exactly that. And there are men in this world who like nothing so much as to relive these historic battles. They dress up in authentic, hand-stitched battle dress and scrupulously imitate the companies' movements down to the exact second and centimetre.
The National Battlefields Commission, the federal body that oversees the Plains of Abraham, announced that such a historical reenactment was going to take place on the Plains to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Quebec in 1759. The debate that this unleashed went on for over a year, becoming so vitriolic that the Grand Chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation, Konrad Sioui, stepped in and said that he would be prepared to formalize an alliance among the parties, bury a hatchet, plant a white pine, and smoke a peace pipe together.
My inbox filled up daily with emails from friends here and elsewhere, each reacting to the developing crisis in different ways. The time for symbols of peace has not yet come, argued one friend. Some progress has been made, he said, but "the Queen of England is still the Canadian head of state, and the British lion and unicorn still loom larger on our coat of arms than the tiny token fleur de lys. The conquest is therefore still relevant today and we can't 'bury the hatchet' while the very symbols that define the country continue to reek of the old Empire."
For a couple of weeks, the way the story was told in the Montreal Gazette or the National Post was so different from that in Le Devoir or La Presse or my local Le Soleil that you would almost think we were living in different countries. Some (in the English media) ranted about victim mentality and bad losers. Others questioned whether the historic complexities behind this battle could really be discerned by peering from a distance through the smoke and bluster of a reenactment.
One of the ignominies of the French defeat at Quebec was that General Montcalm was so contemptuous of his Canadien troops that he didn't bother to train them, thinking them too ignorant, even though he had several idle months over the preceding summer in which to do this. The result was that in the heat of battle the Canadiens disastrously broke rank at a key moment. If the French had won the battle and maintained attitudes like Montcalm's, when, if ever, would France have granted sovereignty to the Canadiens?
Historian Denis Vaugeois aptly remarked that to really understand what happened it would be more useful to reenact the Treaty of Paris, where Britain offered to give back New France and France chose to keep a few Caribbean islands instead.
Dramatic reenactments, argued another historian, are one of the oldest forms of history-telling that we have, and have often served the purpose of reconciling groups with ancient feuds. When I lived in Nepal some years ago, I saw a vivid demonstration of this historian's point. Every year, there was a reenactment of a battle that had once taken place between our village and the neighbouring village. The reenactment took the form of a football game between the young men, and villagers said it was a safeguard against repeating the battle. Quebec City has had its own legendary football wars, not between anglophones and francophones bur between the anglophone Irish Catholic high school and the anglophone Protestant one. Football games can be a dangerous as a substitute for war, however. El Salvador and Honduras waged a six-day war over a couple of...