The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West. Oil on canvas, 1770.
The CBC shocks us all.
Canada's national broadcaster will mark the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham with a documentary on the decisive British-French conflict, months after threats from hardline separatists forced the cancellation of a planned re-enactment in Quebec City.The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, like a broken clock. To our American readers, let me put this in perspective. Imagine if a bunch Southerners demanded that a re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg be cancelled, because the battle recalled painful memories of defeat, and you begin to understand the absurdity of the protests of Quebecois nationalists. One can take two perspectives about landmark events like Gettysburg and the Plains of Abraham. It's big history that deserves to be remembered, regardless of the respective merits of each side. The other approach is honouring the values the respective sides were fighting to uphold. On both counts Gettysburg and Quebec were major events whose outcomes changed their respective nations for the better. While there is no moral comparison between New France and the Confederacy, slavery was a peripheral issue in Canada though it did exist, 1759 was ultimately a lucky break for les Canadiens.
The one-hour documentary, set to air during prime time next Thursday, is already ruffling the feathers of those who opposed the real-life re-enactment
The New France of the mid-eighteenth century was much like old France, quasi-feudal and dominated by a Catholic Church far enough away from grasping the need for the separation of church and state. While the Enlightenment was in full swing in the salons and coffee shops of Paris, its values and attitudes had yet to trickle down to the average Frenchmen in the fields. Only a tiny landed elite along the St. Lawrence would have begun to come to grips with the implications of figures like Voltaire and Diderot. For the generation of Quebec nationalists who emerged after the Quiet Revolution, 1759 was both humiliation and lost opportunity. Had French colonial rule lasted Quebec might have become a modern independent liberal nation, just as Canada and the United States had.
The narrative implies that English speaking Canada helped prop up Quebec's ancien regime. Having about one quarter of the population of Canada stuck in the seventeenth century, for the first hundred years after Confederation, was a significant encumbrance. Something polite opinion has steadily ignored for decades. Quebec was strategically vital to the existence of Canada, yet its basic values were more statist and collectivist than those of the ROC ("Rest of Canada"). For all the celebration of the coureur des bois, the state and clergy preferred les habitant to stay on the farm. The province's educational system famously churned out priests and lawyers, just as schools in English speaking North America were beginning to turn out business graduates and engineers.
The hope that Quebec might have modernized sooner had it remained within France's orbit, omits the bloody history of the metropole after 1789. Five republics, two Empires, three major military defeats and a near coup as late as 1962, modern France modernized slowly and often by force. The France of the 1950s might have been nominally more secular that contemporary Quebec, yet it suffered from many of the same structural setbacks. What Quebec had enjoyed was two centuries of peace, security and relatively more freedom than his French counterpart. The Battle of Quebec was the inception of Canada. For the Quebecois it was the moment they came into the orbit of a liberal and modern government. That alone should be enough to commemorate.