Separatists have a point

By David T. Jones on March 19, 2009

Washington , DC  History is never “dead.”  Not even when all of the participants have long gone to their rewards (or punishments) is it over.  

The contretemps over the now aborted recreation of the battle on the Plains of Abraham demonstrates this reality.  

In the past generation, there has been a renewed interest in historical recreation with often semi-professional “re-enactors” investing considerable sums in historically accurate reproductions of clothing, equipment, and armament.  While media attention has gravitated to the boys-with-toys recreation of assorted battles with whiz bang noise and clouds of smoke, a great deal of “learn from the past” effort has been devoted to revisiting social, political, civilian pursuits of previous eras.

Nevertheless, the planned recreation of the battle on the Plains of Abraham as a highlight of the 250th anniversary of the battle was clearly a one-in-your-eye to many Quebeckers.

The fact that it had been re-enacted several times previously had clearly passed beneath the radar of separatist attention; however, its juxtaposition with a major anniversary had clear political overtones.

We won; you lost—say Anglophones.  And for Quebec’s frequently beleaguered Anglophone minority, memories of this predominance doubtless generate more than a scintilla of pleasure.  One notices that it is invariably the winners who say that the losers should “get over it” and “move on.”  However, the reverse of the coin is exactly what you have seen—the sensitivities of a number of Francophones were abraded sufficiently to prompt squawks of protest.  To be sure, it was a tourist attraction and doubtless local Quebec patrons and merchants sense diminished profits.  But it was also a political event, and attempting to mix politics with profits has predictable perils.

Some defenders of the Plains of Abraham re-enactment attempted to justify it as an equivalent to the annual re-enactment of U.S. Civil War battle at Gettysburg.  That is a feeble analogy.  Gettysburg was fought in the North; the Union army repelled an invading force of Confederates.  We are not holding major re-enactments of Union victories in the South, e.g. Sherman’s march through Georgia and the burning of Atlanta. We have no interest in reviving the angers of those who still believe it was a war of Northern aggression.  Slowly, over the years and then over the decades, the South became reconciled to defeat—and the United States which prior to the Civil War was described in plural terms (“The United States are…”) became a singularity (“The United States is…”)

Without question, the Civil War was the defining element in U.S. history; no war before or since generated more casualties.  It was the hardest possible way to obtain national unity—and hardly to be recommended.  Nevertheless, it is equally clear that Canada has not achieved such cohesion. The persistence, indeed the frequently bitter persistence, of a substantial element of the population that would prefer an independent Quebec demonstrates this circumstance—perhaps the existential circumstance of Canada.  

Thus, in this regard, those responsible for orchestrating the battle recreation could have demanded the right to proceed with the activity.  They could have insisted on appropriate security for the event—and excoriated any demonstrators who moved beyond accepted norms of protest.  After all, the victorious also have rights even when the defeated don’t like defeat.  And the separatists might well have found that semi-violent protest cost rather than gained support.  Conflict avoidance through “reasonable accommodation” doesn’t resolve the roots of conflict; it just puts a cosmetic gloss on its scars.

In the United States, re-enactments have a further dimension.  The financial and intellectual effort devoted to developing Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia starting in the 1930s and the closely related facilities of Jamestown and Yorktown have combined archeology and historical research.  At their best, these efforts provide the visitor a sense beyond the written word of how people lived and interrelated (minus to be sure the absence of sanitary facilities and close proximity of family life to their livestock).  Or on the grander scale, one can visit Mount Vernon (Washington’s home) or Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s estate) and gather an appreciation of the human qualities of these men from well-briefed staff in period costume.  Moreover, our history continues to struggle with the role of African Americans in colonial society—previously all but invisible, they are claiming appropriate recognition as part of U.S. history.

There is much that Francophone and Anglophone can celebrate and mutually appreciate in their interrelated Quebec past without reviving old hatreds.   


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