Recently, Canada's National Battlefield Commission announced that it was cancelling its plan to host a 250th-anniversary reenactment this summer of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, at the site of the 1759 engagement in Quebec City. More than 2,000 military reenactors were expected to take part in the commemoration, some coming from France, Germany, and England.
The battle, which occurred during the Anglo-French struggle for North America known in the United States as the French and Indian War, pitted several thousand British soldiers under General James Wolfe against a similar number of French troops and Canadian militia under Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm. The British appeared on the Plains after climbing a steep cliff beneath the city during the night, and surprised Gen. Montcalm, who decided to fight them then rather than wait for a reinforcing column to return to Quebec from the west. The battle itself was mostly confused and indecisive, and lasted less than an hour, but before it was over both Wolfe and Gen. Montcalm were mortally wounded (as depicted in the above painting, The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West). The British finally overwhelmed the French force and took control of Quebec City, which they managed to hold until the following year when the French government found itself unable to supply and reinforce its troops in Canada, and lost Montreal; this left Canada entirely in British hands. Rightly or not, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham has been seen as the beginning of the end of the French empire in North America.
While reportedly many francophones did not favor the planned reenactment, radical Quebec "separatist" groups, including Le Reseau de Resistance du Quebecois, Bloc Quebecois, and Parti Quebecois, went further and forcefully denounced it as "disrespectful" and "offensive," promising to bring out masses of demonstrators to disrupt it. There were veiled threats of violence, with some protesters allegedly planning to arm themselves with paintball guns. Finally, on February 17, Battlefield Commission chairman Andre Juneau declared the re-enactment cancelled because the Commission "because of the impossibility of ensuring the safety of the public and the participants." He even expressed a willingness to resign over the incident, something that many separatists had demanded. One of their spokesmen called the cancellation a "victory for citizen mobilization."
As a lifelong history enthusiast and a military reenactor myself, I was shocked and dismayed when I learned of this incident--not only because a chance to teach history to thousands in such an impressive way was lost. That's unfortunate enough. What's worse is that history itself was hijacked, held hostage, and used to serve the narrow political ends of an unscrupulous few, and a government supposedly of laws effectively helped them do it.
Obviously, the separatists couldn't care less about history; everything they said and did served only to undermine its cause. First, of course, they have deprived many people of an opportunity to teach and learn, in a uniquely compelling way, about one of the most important events in Canadian history. The separatists might have even participated in the event to help present the French-Canadian viewpoint, and won some sympathy and support. But, apparently, exhibiting their little parties' political influence was more important. What gives them the right to decide for everyone else what can and can't be taught about history, and how? Their ancestors may have played a part in the Battle or the events that led up to or followed it, but they don't "own" it. The truth belongs to all--no matter how much pain or regret it may entail for some people--and all have a right to teach and learn it. If the study of history doesn't stay free and uncompromised, by political correctness or any other distorting influence, it can't properly be learned from, and we'll keep making the same kinds of mistakes that the separatists and others now complain of.
Also lost for everyone is a chance to commemorate the sacrifices and suffering of the men on both sides of the Battle, French and French-Canadian as well as English. No one doubts the valor of the separatists' own ancestors, regardless of the Battle's outcome. So, why shouldn't we all join in remembering and honoring them? This is what we do, with true reverence, for both the Union and Confederacy at every American Civil War reenactment. The separatists' determined effort to prevent such an event almost suggests that they are ashamed of their ancestors' performance that day on the Plains of Abraham. Perhaps Gen. Montcalm's decisions on that occasion were questionable, but this hardly reflects on the valor of the common soldiers who fought for him. Are the long-term cultural and political consequences of the Battle, regretted though they may be by many French-Canadians, any reason to suppress the memory of what was contended for there?
Certainly, then, history meant something to the separatists only to the extent they could exploit people's feelings about it to advance their own political interests. That was the only interest served by cancellation of the reenactment. Who lost? The people of Quebec City and Province certainly lost the tourism, dollars, and good will that the event would have brought them. And we've seen what has been lost in terms of public education and appreication of heritage. But the most grevious injury from this episode was to the dignity of, and public confidence in, government itself. By caving in to the radicals' intimidation tactics, the Canadian government effectively handed over the powers democratically given it by the people to a handful of gangsters, who now call the shots. As the Calgary Herald observed, "The lesson in all of this, sadly, seems to be that threats of violence sometimes pay off. The federal commission's decision to cancel is akin to meeting the irrational demands of terrorists."
This is how the tail comes to wag the dog; how democracy and the rule of law are subverted by the power-lust of a small clique wielding the carrot of political correctness and the stick of fear over timid, small-minded officials. A sensible approach for those officials would have been to reassure the public of the government's commitment, provide for enhanced security, and use some diplomacy to get responsible French-Canadians to participate actively in the event's planning and presentation. Apparently, this was simply beyond their capacity. Now the Canadian people will learn the hard lesson that once surrendered to, gangsters only get stronger and bolder, and their list of demands ever longer.
This is a dangerous development for the United States, too. In the southern states we have already seen how vocal, self-serving pressure groups can intimidate officials into removing Confederate flags, statuary, and other elements of a proud heritage from public spaces and school curricula. Will they now be emboldened to "protest" reenactments of Civil War battles that the Confederacy won, or any public demonstration of Southern heritage? Will increased pressure be brought on the National Park Service to interpret the Civil War at our battlefields only in ways that the "interest groups" find satisfying? Will Latinos band together to oppose any public exhibitions about the Mexican–American War of 1846-1848, because its consequences may be "painful" for them? Let us pray that truth, common sense, neighborliness, and official responsibility on this side of the border are not casualties of what's transpired north of it.