Even Quebecers should celebrate Montcalm's loss
The outcome of this squabble has rightly been deplored as a victory for intimidation. I do not think it is an invitation for everyone to play this game and I do not think that anyone should.
But it distresses me that anyone who dared threaten a group of separatists would not merely be arrested and punished, but would in the process probably be given exactly the same stern lecture about peace, order, good government and the Canadian way that this ragtag band of odious sovereigntists were not. Almost as though those in power were in sympathy with their motives.
Sorry. Did I say "almost"? Actually, Premier Jean Charest, though condemning the threats, supported the cancellation of an event he had earlier criticized and pointedly refused to attend. And as Graeme Hamilton noted in the National Post, in announcing the cancellation, National Battlefields Commission president André Juneau said "French people were still worried to see all those red uniforms on the Plains, even if it's 250 years ago."
Excuse me? Were there protests in Paris? Who are these French people of whom you speak? And what exactly is their ethnic or intellectual affiliation with Louis XV and his troops?
My question would, I am sure, be met with contempt in Quebec. Allow me to reciprocate.
As I wrote in 2005, "It was appalling tribalism for Jean Chrétien to wish he'd been there to wake up Montcalm, as if a preference for constitutional monarchy, civil rights and representative institutions over French absolutist tyranny were some grotesque Anglo propensity like boiling vegetables into pasty grey submission."
There are aspects of history that are genuinely painful to recall. For instance, things that are just plain bad. In the U.S. history course I'll be teaching this spring at the University of Ottawa, covering 1865-1945, we must deal frankly with obscene racism including the ghastly reality of lynching. But while we shudder, we do recall it, with moral as well as factual clarity.
A second painful category is events where something good was squandered on behalf of something bad. Thus Americans re-enact Gettysburg without controversy, and even express some nostalgia for the chivalry of the Old South, but only because virtually everyone knows that on the main point, slavery, the Confederacy was utterly and repugnantly wrong.
A third and more problematic category is events in which both sides were in large measure wrong. An example is the enduring and lethal divisions in Ireland over the Battle of the Boyne, where wilfully obtuse Jacobitism faced off against centuries of brutal misrule from London. But no such thing happened when Wolfe met Montcalm.
On the Plains of Abraham the political fate of the northern part of North America was settled. Not the ethnic fate, the political fate. And it was settled in favour of democracy and toleration. The British government promised francophones "langue, loi et foi" and kept their word. Does anyone think a victorious enlarged New France would have respected the English language, Protestant religion, common law or for that matter self-government?
It is not irrelevant here to observe that Quebec separatists don't even like their own history, let alone ours. They repudiate the Church and the deferential society of 19th-century Quebec in theory and in their personal lives. They call even the Duplessis years "the great darkness." Not one of them would advocate the political, cultural, religious or economic arrangements of 18th-century France.
So what's the problem? Are the Montcalmites sorry they missed their date with Robespierre and Madame Guillotine? Do they wish they had stood with Napoléon at Waterloo, and Napoléon III at Sedan? Quebec nationalists didn't exactly rush to the colours when France was threatened in 1914 or needed rescuing after 1940. What's wrong with British self-government, suppression of the slave trade and defeat of Hitler that you'd rather be part of, say, Vichy France?
The past isn't about competing narratives equally valid for various ethnic groups. It's about truth. The truth is that Britain defeated France in the Seven Years' War. And in the process self-government vanquished absolutism on the Plains of Abraham, leaving everyone including Quebecers far better off.
So shut up and put on your wool coat.
[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]