Terre de nos aïeux

When lecturing others on history it is almost always a good idea to read some first.

This morning’s Le Devoir is topped by this front-page banner headline: “Jean Charest rewrites history.” The article, by reporters Robert Dutrisac in Quebec City and Christian Rioux in Paris, is only the latest in an endless series of alarums on one of the paper’s favourite themes, that Quebecers have somehow managed to elect (twice; it’s so embarrassing) as their premier a man who betrays and denies the Nation’s True Nature.

“To justify the great visibility that Canada has obtained in France thanks to the festivities surrounding the 400th anniversary of Quebec City,” Dutrisac writes, “premier Jean Charest devoted himself to a rewriting of history by asserting that Quebec City founded Canada. This conception is similar to the views of the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, who judges, for his part, that the foundation of Quebec City in 1608 marks that of the Canadian state.”

It is perhaps best to imagine the rest of the article as though it was being whispered to you in urgent tones by a guy who has buttonholed you at a bistro and is sharing the details of a vast conspiracy he has only just uncovered.

“During Question Period at the National Assembly, the leader of the Parti Québécois, Pauline Marois, signalled that ‘the federal government and the Governor General share, in France right now, the idea that the 400th anniversary of Quebec City marks the beginning of Canada.’ She demanded that Jean Charest ‘correct this impression.’ Not only did the premier refuse to obey, he laid on some more: ‘We are proud of the fact that Quebec founded Canada, precisely.'”

Rioux adds panicked dispatches from Paris: “It was in evoking the 400th and a multi-ethnic Canada that Michaëlle Jean yesterday met the most important representatives of the French state, the presidents of the National Assembly and the Senate to the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë. The cornerstone of this visit was a short meeting of about 20 minutes between the Governor General and Nicolas Sarkozy, whom she will see twice today during the ceremonies of the 1945 victory at Ouistreham and in the Canadian cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer.

“‘I really want to make this celebration of the 400th anniversary a unique and festive moment,’ she declared on her exit from the Elysée Palace. The Governor General made several insistent points about ‘the great global success of Quebec, of which we are so proud.’ Her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, even vaunted ‘this country, Quebec and Canada, which has brought me the added value I needed.’ [Lafond was born and raised in France — pw]”

I could go on. These guys certainly do. But let us boil down the articles of indictment. They are that Canada’s vice-roy is being well-received in France on the occasion of what is supposed to be a Quebec anniversary; and, more damning, that Quebec’s premier sees the anniversary of the city where he works as a key moment in Canada‘s history.

Well, fetch the smelling salts. To drive home the gravity of Charest’s offense, we have Michel David, whose column (subscribers only, I fear) reminisces about the good old days when Bernard Landry was around. “Sure, the former premier had his faults, but he would never have let the Harper government hijack the meaning of the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Quebec City’s founding without reacting vigorously…. M. Landry would certainly not have tolerated that Champlain be dressed in drag as the founding father of Canada, precisely at the moment where the city he founded will be the host of the summit of La Francophonie.”

One hardly knows where to begin, except to lecture these historians on some history.

The city of Quebec was, and remains, the cradle of a people who not only participated in the foundation of Canada, but which existed before it and which paved, in a way, the road toward the installation of representative political institutions. But don’t take my word for it, because in fact those aren’t my words. What I just did was quote, verbatim, part of a speech Joseph Facal gave in 2000 when he was Lucien Bouchard’s minister of Canadian intergovernmental relations. Facal goes on to complain about the Clarity Act, which he often did, but I like his opening point so much that here it is again. “The city of Quebec was, and remains, the cradle of a people who not only participated in the foundation of Canada, but which existed before it and which paved, in a way, the road toward the installation of representative political institutions.”

Of course Dutrisac’s (and Rioux’s and David’s and Le Devoir publisher Bernard Descôteaux’s) real grievance against Charest, Harper, Jean and Lafond is not that they are re-writing history but they are refusing to vandalize it in the manner Le Devoir prefers. It is possible to refuse to believe the idea that Champlain was founding Canada when he stepped off the Don de Dieu, because of course he cannot have known what he was getting into. But you cannot simultaneously believe he was not founding Canada and that he was founding a modern, secular, nationalist Quebec. I have searched the old paintings and I do not see Camille Laurin and Claude Charron at Champlain’s side. He was a guy getting off a boat, and if Michel David wants to claim Champlain for part of what came next then he cannot deny the right of Jean Charest and Stephen Harper to claim Champlain for other parts of what happened next.

It is a complex story, one whose complexities earlier generations of Quebecers frankly had far less trouble navigating than do my poor colleagues at Le Devoir. In his wonderful 1999 book The Art of Nation-Building: Pageantry and Spectacle at Quebec’s Tercentenary, historian H.V. Nelles, then at York University and now at McMaster, describes the bewildering mess of influences that made the 1908 celebrations of Quebec City’s founding such a rich moment in our — define “our” how you like — history. City Hall wanted to play, as did the governments of Quebec and Canada, the Church, the Crown, the absentee fatherland of France, the American neighbour, the Iroquois Confederacy. They all got in, and the results would simply have confused the poor guardians of Quebec’s nationalist virtue.

Nelles reproduces the cover of the event’s official English-language souvenir programme, which carries the words: “Souvenir Programme of the National Celebration at Quebec. The Ancient Capital of Canada.”

This year the guardians of a certain Quebec nationalism managed to scare off Queen Elizabeth, who had been thinking of visiting Quebec to join the celebrations. In 1908 there was no such backlash and the Prince of Wales came to host the main festivities in July. The Mayor of Quebec City, J. George Garneau, greeted Prince George at the feet of the monument to Champlain, whom Garneau called “the glorious founder of Canada.” The Prince then watched what Nelles calls “a cavalcade of Canadian history, beginning with Jacques Cartier and his crew bearing a massive wooden cross, followed by a deputation of native people… Generals Montcalm and Wolfe… a small band of French-Canadian militia, commanded by Guy Carleton, who repulsed Montgomery’s invasion of Quebec in a December blizzard in 1775, brought up the rear along with three-hundred of Salaberry’s green-clad Voltigeurs, defenders once again of Canada against the Americans at the Battle of Châteauguay in 1812…. In turn, all of Canadian history and much of that of France passed in review before the heir to the British throne and thereby, presented itself as prologue to the present.”

If we forget that any of this happened, then who is re-writing history?

I don’t want to conscript Viv Nelles into some simple-minded crusade against Quebec nationalism. He’s far too subtle a historian for that. This Ontario historian’s book about Quebec is far more sensitive to Quebec’s real complexity than anything Michel David would ever write about Ontario or, come to think of it, about Quebec. His book is all about the competing claims of different ideas of nationhood, and about how they were played out on a battlefield, the Plains of Abraham — by revellers in costume watched by holidaying families. Remember that this was 1908, when Franz Joseph was annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece seemed unable to choose between war with Bulgaria and war with Turkey. “Here, too, were Canadians preoccupied with domestic arrangements while other principalities and powers aligned themselves for battle. The point is not that politics intruded into the gaiety or interfered with the master plan, but rather that festivals are politics. By commemeorating we necessarily celebrate ourselves. But more often then not we are plural, and opinion about identity and destiny is divided.”

Jacques Rouillard, a historian who runs the Quebec Studies program at the Université de Montréal, makes a similar point in this essay, when he writes that the easy co-existence of multiple identities and the welcoming attitude toward the heirs of Gen. Wolfe gave way in Quebec after 1960 to “a new, pessimistic reading of the history of French Canada marked by the idea of economic and political inferiority … Quebec becomes a colonised nation and the British monarchy, like the link to Canada itself, are interpreted as the source of French Canadians’ ‘backwardness.'” Rouillard concludes: “The desire for a break with the past since the Quiet Revolution has made us lose the memory of our British heritage and of an entire section of our history that was open to modernity.”

Quebec City’s contribution to Canada’s history is so obvious it must take heroic concentration to ignore it. Here are the Fathers of Confederation at Quebec City in 1864, where Quebecers pushed to make the new country a federation. The Annual Premiers’ Conference, a Canadian institution of a half-century’s standing, was launched by a Quebecer, Jean Lesage, and replaced with the Council of the Federation at the behest of two Quebecers, Jean Charest and Benoît Pelletier.

That’s the history. No: it’s a history. The history that seeks to erase everything between the Conquest and the nationalization of Hydro-Quebec, with the exception of the Durham Report, is another. Michel David and Robert Dutrisac can have that one. But they don’t get to call everybody elses a “re-writing.”

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