The claim that history is written by the winners doesn’t apply to Canada. Our history is written by the whiners. This week’s cancellation of the re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at Quebec City is another lamentable moment in the troubling politicization of Canadian history.
Quebec separatist groups, some making vague threats of violence, expressed outrage over plans for the 250th anniversary of the most famous battle ever fought on Canadian soil. Any recognition of the fact the English won the Battle of Quebec, effectively ending French rule in Canada, is seen as a “humiliation” by hard-core separatists and evidence of “federalist propaganda.” The National Battlefield Commission, which administers the park, dutifully cancelled the re-enactment to avoid offending anyone.
While the move may keep a few loud-mouthed complainers at bay—and thousands of eager re-enactors at home—acquiescence of this sort does grave damage to our identity as a country. Serious historians acknowledge that those few minutes outside the walls of Quebec City on Sept. 13, 1759, marked the most important single event in post-contact North America. The battle’s immediate result was to seal the fate of New France and leave the continent in British hands. It also signalled the end of Aboriginals’ control over their own destiny. And the financial cost of victory in the Seven Years War led Britain to raise taxes on its American colonies, precipitating a revolution 17 years later. The foundations for both Canada and the United States were laid that day. This is historical fact. Ignoring it does not make it go away.
Curiously, last week several separatist Quebec politicians attended a ceremony honouring five patriotes who were hanged by the British following the defeat of the Rebellion in Lower Canada in 1837. But what makes one such event worth celebrating and another a trigger for outrage and violence? It is a self-delusional pursuit to allow political groups to cull historical events into acceptable and unacceptable incidents.
Other countries do not seem to suffer from this same fear of their own past. The Battle of Gettysburg was similarly a conclusive defeat for the Confederacy. Yet Americans from both the North and South manage to participate in annual re-enactments without animosity or threats. They are able to recognize the event for what it is—a significant and non-political event that defined a nation.
We lack this ability, as witnessed by the outrage-driven political revisionism of the Battle of Quebec, bombing campaigns of the Second World War, the Riel Rebellions and numerous other episodes. We are losing the war against our own history
A mature and confident Canada ought to be able to consider its own past without fretting about who might complain. And the complainers might even come to a greater appreciation for their own condition. The terms of surrender for Quebec drafted by British Gen. James Wolfe, who died on the battlefield that day, established the protection of Quebec’s unique culture, language, law and religion that has since become the hallmark of modern Canada’s identity. It seems a fact worth celebrating. Or at least acknowledging.
Our readers were quick to respond to our editorial in the March 2 issue, which hit newsstands last week. Here’s a sample from our Inbox:
The column “A war on our history” (From the Editor’s Desk, Mar. 2), regarding the late, lamented re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham made my day! I have had smoke coming out of my ears every since learning of the pusillanimous decision of the National Battlefield Commission to cancel this historic event, which shaped the entire future of the North America. The Canadian government, and the Canadian people, have bent over backwards to accommodate Quebec’s sensibilities, but the separatists behave like recalcitrant and immature children who want revenge, no matter how petty. Your column put it succinctly when it said “our history is written by the whiners.” Bravo!
Ruth Craig, Mississauga, Ont.
Your editors say that Canadian history is “written by the whiners” and then go on to prove it. The remainder of the article is one long whine about separatists and “political revisionism.” English Canada seems to have swallowed a big chunk of British myth-making. Certainly, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was important, but the whole thing was an episode in the Seven Years’ War, a worldwide imperial war involving not only the British and the French, but also Prussia, Russia, Spain and others. The North American episode ended with the Treaty of Paris when France traded Quebec to Britain in return for Guadeloupe and Martinique. Instead of dressing men up in costumes and having them shoot blanks at each other, why not re-enact the
Treaty of Paris? It is not surprising that some French Canadians feel that re-enacting a battle which represented a defeat for some of their ancestors is an attempt to humiliate them. Instead of pretending to be imperial cannon fodder, let’s act like grown-ups.
John K. Collins, Winnipeg
Most Canadians do not or refuse to understand that Quebec separatists have never accepted the battle at the Plains as a defeat but, rather, a tie game. They have been playing the overtime period for 250 years and will continue to play until they win. Any losses or setbacks they incur are brushed off by blaming the feds, the English language “threat” or minorities that refuse to see the world through their prism.
Jacob Kasperowicz, Kirkland, Que.
The decision to cancel the Battle of the Plains of Abraham re-enactment is regrettable. It is especially sad because it should be celebrated, not for who won the short skirmish but for its aftermath. It is in the vested self-interest of separatists to trumpet an imagined insult when they say the re-enactment would have been a slight to their French heritage. Rather, it was the enlightened articles of the “capitulation” agreement after the cessation of hostilities that led to the 1763 Treaty of Paris, that gave New France the guarantees that preserved its culture. The treaty broke with common practice—think of the Acadian expulsion in the years before—and granted unprecedented rights of religion, language and education that reinforced and protected the culture of the former French subjects who now found themselves under British rule. Without this pivotal point in history, French in Quebec today would probably be like it is in Louisiana: a quaint Cajun cultural tourist attraction and possibly not even an official language. All Canadians should be celebrating this anniversary, but perhaps none more so than the Quebecois.
Peter Goldring, Member of Parliament, Edmonton East
Personally, I think it was a good move to cancel the re-enactment of the Battle on the Plains of Abraham. Ever since 1759 this little battle has been a sore point with every generation of French Canadians. Why would the rest of Canada want to flaunt “our” win in glowing colours and graphic productions? As a federal employee, I loved working with my French-speaking
collegues in Ottawa and Quebec. They have a joie de vivre that seems to be lacking here in the West. I very much appreciate what their culture has given to Canada. Could we not use this anniversary to let Quebec know how much they are appreciated?
G. A. Teske, Sherwood Park, Alta.
It’s time to move on, to stop dressing up, brandishing muskets, pikes and tomahawks. There is much more to write about in our nation than the nostalgic foolishness to which you devote a page.
Gordon M. Clark, Summerland, B.C.