Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz (2011)

Attaboy

February 23, 2009 at 4 PM

Mustn’t challenge the propaganda: it might upset people

This morning’s column by Lysiane Gagnon in The Globe and Mail on the Plains of Abraham re-anactment brouhaha is a delicious piece of irony that reveals just how thin is the skin of Quebec nationalists and, conversely, how thick are the layers of self-deception that maintain the powerful nationalist identity.

“From the start, the commission should never have considered such a project,” she writes. Why? “Such angry reactions are to be expected when an event is deemed offensive by a large part of the population. Contrary to the reports that circulated throughout Canada, the opposition was not limited to militant sovereigntists. It came from large numbers of francophones, including many federalists.” Of course, she doesn’t cite any surveys to back up her claim, but it’s hardly the point. The point is revealed later in her column:

True, the British conquest had some good effects for French Canadians - those who stayed after the French elite sailed back home. They went from an authoritarian monarchy to a constitutional monarchy where some basic civil rights were beginning to be recognized. In 1763, they benefited from habeas corpus, while in France (even to this day), one can still be jailed for months without being charged. In 1774, French civil law was restored in Quebec. In 1791, French Canadians were living in a parliamentary democracy, while a bloody revolution was going on in France.

But these are rational arguments that ignore emotions. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham still has a strong emotional echo in Quebec. It is the day of la Conquête (the Conquest), which resonates through many interpretations of history and is at the root of Quebec nationalism.

Gagnon admits — as any student of history ought to — that French-Canadians actually did quite well under British rule after 1759. France cared little for its fledgling colony. It was too far away, too small and too cold. The Plains of Abraham battle was certainly symbolic and it makes a nice painting for history but it was hardly a turning point in itself. The French conceded New France to focus their attention on more important battles. They traded the New France territory to the British so that the British would stop harassing them in the far more lucrative territory of Guadaloupe.

But all that doesn’t matter. The symbolism of the Plains of Abraham is far more important than historical accuracy for the purposes of Quebec nationalism. Of course we have a word for when people put overloaded significance into historical events to suit their political aims: it’s called propaganda. Every country does it, but Gagnon’s argument essentially boils down to the idea that Canadian federalists shouldn’t challenge Quebec propaganda because it might upset Quebec nationalists.

Never mind that the Plains of Abraham re-enactment is hardly a provocation. It didn’t imply a celebration of one side or the other, it merely implied recognition of a historical event that took place. Exploring the myths of history is an important exercise for any nation, be it the French-Canadian one or the not-mutually-exclusive pan-Canadian one. Not only should it be okay for Canadians to challenge Quebec’s nationalist myths, federalist Quebecers themselves ought to be the ones doing it. That they don’t, or won’t, is a sad commentary on the fragility of Quebec identity. Stripped of ideas like “la Conquête”, Quebec might be forced to confront the fact that not only did French-Canadians flourish under British rule, but they were in fact the very same people who agreed to confederate with British Loyalists (the English Canadians) a hundred years later. The history of New France is the history of Canada, and non-separatist French-Canadians ought to take more credit (or blame) for creating this country instead of thinking of reasons to disown it.

For a far better examination of the Plains silliness, I recommend Konrad Yakabuski’s column in Saturday’s Globe and Mail. Kudos to the Globe for showing both sides of the coin, even if it shows how ridiculous the face of one side is.

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